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.
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.
In May 2016 I traveled for 2 weeks in the Balkans; a very short time to get to know it, but long enough to fall in love with the region.
I left home (in Vicenza) without knowing my itinerary. All I knew was that I was going by train to Trieste, and from there I would take a bus to Dubrovnik, in Croatia.
In Trieste I had one hour and a half before my bus, so I decided to take a walk to the main square, Piazza Unità d’Italia, which is one of the most beautiful squares I’ve ever seen and it’s only 15 minutes walk from the two stations.
Here is a video I made of that hour in Trieste:
10 minutes to get to the Balkans
Trieste is close to the border with Slovenia, so after 10 minutes on the bus I was already in the Balkans. But it took me 15 hours to get to Dubrovnik. Anyway, just crossing the border and seeing road signs in a different language threw me on a state of euphoria.
It was interesting in the North of Croatia to see many billboards advertising dental clinics. I had recently seen a program on TV describing this new trend of doing “dental” trips to Croatia from Italy to have your teeth fixed: it’s much cheaper (even including travel expenses) and of good quality. There were so many ads, I had the impression even postmen have become dentists in Croatia now.
I left Trieste at 6.30 pm and the following morning, at 9.30 am (one hour after scheduled time) I arrived in Dubrovnik. I went to the hostel to leave my luggage (fortunately my bed was ready) and shower and I went out immediately. I had seen many pictures of Dubrovnik before and dreamt of seeing it in person. I was not disappointed.
The only negative aspect of this beautiful walled town: cruise ships stop here and every day they toss thousands of tourists into its streets.
After Dubrovnik I decided to go to Montenegro. Kotor is only a couple of hours from Dubrovnik. Again, a cruise ships stop, a walled town, and a WOW place. What was nice here is that you can have some nice skewers for a few euro: Montenegrins love their grilled food! Much cheaper than Croatia.
Kotor can be visited in a few hours, so on the second day I took a day trip to the north of Montenegro, organized by a local agency. It only cost me 39 euro and it would have been difficult to get there by myself on public transportation. And what I saw made me really happy I did this trip, although we didn’t stop to take pictures where I wanted.
We visited Salt Lake, the Tara bridge, Durmitor National Park with its Black Lake, and the Ostrog Monastery, carved in a rock.
In these few days traveling I had made a plan to go to Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania, and from there take a ferry to Italy, but the bus from Podgorica, the capital city of Montenegro, arrives in Pristina in Kosovo at 5 am. And what was I meant to do in Pristina at that time of the day? I did it in the past, I am not willing to repeat it again; I’m getting old I guess.
So the following day I decided to go to Ulcinj, on the border with Albania, and on the way I stopped in Budva.
Another beautiful walled town by the sea, a holiday destination loved by Montenegrins, Russian and Ukrainians.
After a couple of hours walking along the tiny alleys of Budva, I took a small bus to Ulcinj. There was an accident on the way and we had to wait for about an hour; I basically wasted the whole afternoon for a 2 hours drive. But these things happen when you are backpacking, and it’s no big deal. I actually enjoyed the positive side of it: I studied how Montenegrins react when they are blocked on the road and don’t know why and how long it’s going to take. They get upset and anxious, just like Italians. We are not that different after all. Although I’m not sure I can say for sure they were Montenegrins the people that were on the bus. Apparently in Montenegro live people coming from the whole region, mainly Serbia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania.
Ulcinj was part of Albania until a few years ago, and its name is pronounced differently according to whom you are talking to. I knew it was a preview of what I would witness in Albania, and I was very excited. And what did I find here: there were only men at the cafes. There were women walking in the street or in the shops, but only men at the cafes. And me. Quite interesting.
Another walled town, with nudist beaches, nice food and great coffee. Unfortunately because I had little time, I could only stay here one night. The following afternoon I was on my way to Albania.
Albanians don’t have a good reputation in Italy, but while I was living in London and here in Arzignano I have met a few people from Albania and I found them nice and interesting. I really wanted to go and meet them in their natural environment.
The first stop was Shkoder. A beautiful town with Venetian influence in the architecture and the language, a great outdoor-time-spending culture and therefore many cafes (some – mainly sports bar – with only male guests, others with both men and women).
I arrived at about 6.30 pm and went immediately to the hostel. A few hours later I was in love with Albania. It was probably all these people in the pedestrian streets of Shkoder that seduced me (I guess the great food at little price helped too). Very helpful people, ready to help if you were lost, never trying to take advantage of a solo female traveller, curious, enjoying their time socializing face to face.
The next day I crossed the artificial Koman Lake and got to Valbona. The local boat from Koman is built from an old German bus and stops in the middle of nowhere and you see people walking up hidden paths towards hidden houses lost in the rocky mountains whose slopes decline towards the lake.
The idea was to trek from Valbona to Theth, but some people scared me off, saying that a few months earlier a German lady died along the path, so I did some hiking on the hills of Valbona and went back to Shkoder the same way I got there.
I enjoyed Valbona a lot. It’s lost in the mountains. It’s a place of peace and shepherds, of quiet tourism, but with a big potential. I bet it will become a top travel destination soon.
From Valbona I went back to Shkoder and from there to Tirana, 2 hours away. I must say that Tirana was not my favorite destination. All religious buildings were destroyed by communism; the only building that survived was this old mosque.
But one thing I liked in Tirana a lot: all the outdoor cafes, some in beautiful gardens, and again people enjoying their time outside. I’m afraid in Italy we have lost this habit. We do go out for a coffee and meet friends in the street, but not as much as in Albania.
I spent the day walking around Tirana and the following day I was on a bus to Berat.
Berat is also called “the town of the thousand windows”. Its peculiarity are the ottoman houses that have many windows; therefore the name. It’s a Unesco Heritage Site since 2008. Very charming.
After Berat I went to Gjirokaster in the south, near the Greek border. I loved it because despite being a Unesco Heritage Site, it has little tourism. But things are going to change, or so believes (and hopes) William, the Dutch owner of the best hostel I’ve ever been to.
During the communism were built many bunkers in Albania, to protect the Nomenklatura from possible nuclear attacks. In Gjirokaster you can visit one quite big with long tunnels and many rooms. Creepy.
I also went hiking on the hills near Gjirokaster, to see a roman amphitheater and two monasteries abandoned many years ago.
From Gjirokaster I went back to Durres; thanks to the new roads it is now just 3 hours away. From there I took a night ferry to Bari. The ferry was only 30 euro, less than what I had seen on the web.
I arrived in Bari at about 9 am. I decided to take a train back to Vicenza in the afternoon, so that I could walk a bit around Bari. And the old town is amazing. I had seen pictures of Lecce before and I know that Puglia is a beautiful region, but I wasn’t expecting the old town of Bari to be so beautiful.
There was music coming out from every window and people chatting in the streets. But two local elderly people told me to keep an eye on my stuff. I was so relaxed and untroubled in Albania, I had forgotten you need to be careful in Italy. But nothing bad happened, despite the fact that I was walking with one big backpack and one smaller bag on the front. I really enjoyed my 4 hours in Bari.
I have discovered a new beautiful world lived by amazing people just a few hours from home. I wonder why it took me so long to go there and I hope it won’t take too long before I go back. There’s a lot more I want to see in the Balkans!
I was recently in Morocco for two weeks. It wasn’t my first time, I had already been there 8 or 9 years ago. I had good memories from that trip and these two weeks confirmed that Morocco is a beautiful country to visit, and for more than one reason.
I like Morocco because it’s in Africa, but it’s still quite similar to Europe and you don’t feel that much of the culture shock you might find in other African Countries. Plus it has culture, architecture and handicraft that are incredible attractive.
Here are the reasons why I love it and would go back again and again.
Why you should visit Morocco: The Orange Juice
This is the country of orange trees. They are everywhere, wild in the countryside, in orchards, in gardens, in courtyards. You can drink fresh orange juice any time you want in Morocco; you will probably be offered one in the morning at the riad with your breakfast, you can buy one from 4 to 20 Dirhams (about 0,40 to 2 euro) anywhere. Fruit juice shops are as common as cafeterias, and quite often you can also get pomegranate, banana, lemon, mango and a mix of whatever you like. The orange juice is the best and sweetest you will ever have in your life.
Pottery, carpets, leather goods, lamps, scarfs, jewelry… your mind will be blown away. If you live in Europe it wouldn’t be a crazy idea to arrange a weekend trip to Marrakech just to bring home some beautiful home furniture.
Moroccans love to bargain. And with tourists they like to start big. Very big. So, ask for the price only when you have your own price in mind, what you are ready to pay. And start bidding a third of what you are ready to pay. Don’t worry if it’s a lot less than what you are first asked. Moroccan sellers can ask 10 times what the real price is. And if you don’t get to the price you want, try somewhere else. If when leaving, the seller doesn’t follow you to accept your offered price, probably you are asking for a price that is truly too low.
Morocco is a country full of charm, and a few places are pure magic. To mention one, Chefchaouen, the blue town, the prettiest and one of the cheapest places in Morocco.
Other magic places are the “medina” of any city. I loved it in Marrakech, in Fes, in Tang’er, in Essaouira. The old towns are messy and confusing and might seem a bit dirty, but they are certainly charismatic.
I have never seen cats as well treated as they are in Morocco. I don’t know if they are stray or domestic cats, probably somewhere in between. They are well fed and well taken care of. Cats wait patiently near a butcher, knowing they will get their share of meat, sooner or later. They are given warm shelters, they are cuddled and loved. And to confirm this they are beautiful and healthy.
Cats became my favorite subjects, because people don’t like to be photographed much, while cats don’t really mind.
The landscape is so diverse, it’s incredible how the view from the window changes in such a relatively small country! From the green fertile plains of the West, to the snow capped mountains of the Atlas, to the dry lands of the East, passing through gorges and canyons till the end of the road by the desert. This variety makes this country incredible interesting to my eyes.
Yes, there are plenty of reasons to go to Morocco, and even more to go back. Next time I want to hike in the Atlas and go further South, where fewer tourists go and where probably a more authentic Morocco can be witnessed. And clicking on this link you can see more pictures I took in Morocco.
I’m at my parents’ garage saying goodbye to my cats. I’m sorry, for a few weeks they will sleep alone. But during the day they will have a lot of fun. They will be able to run around my parents’ garden.
I’m anxious and right now I don’t really want to go. Why should one want to travel when you can stay home and travel by reading a good book? I had the same feeling with Tanzania. Just before the departure I didn’t want to go anymore. That was my first time in Africa (I exclude Morocco because it doesn’t feel like Africa much) and I was a bit scared because I didn’t know what to expect. This time what scares me is that the Domincan Republic is considered “not ready” to host independent travelers, that in some forums you are advised to be cautious, because they will try to take advantage of you, it’s complicated to travel, and so on. Actually the fact that it’s not easy to travel is one of the things that convinced me to go. Adventure and the unknown attract me and at the same time scare me. Anyway, if I wasn’t a bit excited at the time of leaving, it wouldn’t be an adventure, would it? And by now I know this is how I feel, and that I will love the trip and will forget about my perplexity.
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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