Author Archives: Julie

Armenia Round Up

What photo takes you right back to Armenia?

Us at Zorats Karer

Us at Zorats Karer. Just one of the many spectacular sights that we had to ourselves in Armenia.

Summarise Armenia in three words.

  • Khachkar – the carved stone crosses are everywhere in the country, especially in graveyards and on church walls
  • Pothole – we really enjoyed having a car to explore some of the out of the way corners of Armenia but driving required a lot of concentration as even the main roads had some impressive potholes!
  • History – we found the depth and breadth of history in this small country staggering – from ancient standing stones to medieval monasteries to 20th century tragedy and politics

You really know you’re in Armenia when…

…your guesthouse seems to be doing their best to overfeed you! We didn’t know much about Armenian food before we arrived so it was a pleasant surprise to find something akin to a mixture of eastern Mediterranean and northern European cuisines. Just as well as our hosts regularly plied us with more food than we could possibly manage.

What one item should you definitely pack when going to Armenia?

Your thermals. Pretty much the whole country is at high altitude so if you’re travelling in the winter or early spring as we did you’ll need some warm clothes – it gets bitterly cold.

Armenian Road Trip

We generally prefer to get around by public transport when we travel – it’s much cheaper, there’s less to worry about and it can be a good way to learn how locals live and move around.  However, when we were researching Armenia there were several sights that we were keen to see but seemed difficult to link together with public transport without using up more days than we had, so we decided to hire a car for just under a week.

Andrew and rental car

Andrew with our Armenian rental car

After collecting the car in the centre of Yerevan we drove north for about an hour to Lake Sevan, one of the largest freshwater high-altitude lakes in the world.  About 35km to the south along the lakeside road we arrived at the small village of Noratus and one of my favourite sights in Armenia.  The graveyard here is incredible, it dates back to medieval times and contains over 800 khachkars (literally ‘cross stones’) carved between the 9th and 17th centuries. It looked even more magical as the ground was covered in a thick layer of snow and the sun came out just as we arrived.

Noratus cemetery

One of the two small chapels at Noratus cemetery surrounded by khachkars

Walking around we could see how the khachkar developed from the early cradle stones, so called as they mimic the shape of a traditional hanging cradle, into more and more intricately carved crosses.  Khachkars are found all over Armenia, particularly around churches and monasteries, and they seem to have a wider cultural rather than just religious significance. The cross often grows from a representation of the Tree of Life and they can be decorated with carvings of the sun and moon, plants or people.

Khachkars at Noratus

Khachkars at Noratus (clockwise from top left): cradle stones from the 17th century; a row of simple crosses from the 10th-11th centuries; khachkars from the later stages of development; a modern take on the khachkar

The cemetery is still in use, unfortunately we didn’t have much time to look around the modern section as it was beginning to snow and, despite our best efforts, forging our own path through the snow had resulted in wet socks and cold feet.  Nevertheless by the end of that first afternoon we’d already decided that the car hire had been a splendid idea.  

Frozen Lake Sevan

Frozen Lake Sevan from our hotel room. It’s not usual for the lake to freeze, but locals told us that 2016/17 had been a particularly cold winter.

Next morning, we cleared 5cm of snow off the top of the car and set off on the longest drive of the week to Syunik, the southernmost province of Armenia.  During the summer the journey might be a bit shorter, but in early March the most direct mountain pass is still closed by snow and our only option was to take the road back to Yerevan and continue from there along the main highway to the south.

Armenian motorway detour

Armenian roads require a lot of concentration to drive, even when we thought we’d found a smooth stretch of motorway it turned out that bridges were being built and we frequently had to slow down or detour off the main carriageway

By late afternoon, we arrived at another equally remarkable but even older site.  Just outside the town of Sisian, Zorats Karer is also known as the Armenian Stonehenge but is actually even older.  Sited on a plateau surrounded by hills, archaeologists have dated the stones and tombs to 3000BC.  Again the weather was kind, the sun came out and we had the place to ourselves though it was bitterly cold on the exposed hilltop.

Zorats Karer

The standing stones at Zorats Karer

The standing stones are arranged in an oval around a central burial tumulus and sweeping off in two arms to the north and south so that it probably looks a bit like a galaxy from above.  Around 80 of the 223 stones contain holes near their top which are believed to be aligned with the stars making it an ancient astronomical observatory.

Zorats Karer

Zorats Karer (clockwise from top left): the biggest stones stand 2.5-3m tall; many of the stones contain a neatly bored hole close to their top; the burial tumulus in the central oval

Sisian

We spent the second night of our road trip in Sisian, a town which has fallen on hard times since the collapse of the Soviet Union

Next day our target was Goris, just 40km away, but we took advantage of the freedom we had driving ourselves to stop at a few places on the way.

The tower tomb at Aghitu dates to the 7th century and has seemingly been plonked in the centre of an otherwise small and unremarkable village.  We had a good look around and were heading back to the car when we noticed an elderly lady walking down the road giving us a pretty obvious side-eye once over.  We responded to this in our usual way by smiling broadly and calling out ‘barev dzez!’ (Hello!) to which we received the very unusual response of said elderly lady stopping and engaging us in fluent (though clearly not recently practiced) and unaccented English, telling us she was a graduate of the Foreign Languages Institute.  You could have knocked us over with a feather!

Aghitu tower tomb

Aghitu tower tomb

Just a bit further down the road is the monastery of Vorotnavank.  In a commanding position above the river Vorotan the monastery was largely destroyed in an earthquake in 1931 and has been rebuilt.  We enjoyed looking at the carved stone fragments which litter the grounds.

Vorotnavank monastery

There’s a fantastic view down the valley from Vorotnavank monastery

After a bit of an adventure trying (and failing) to go up a road which we eventually decided was far too rocky and rutted for our car, we arrived at our final stop, Kotrats Caravanserai.  With nothing more than a signpost pointing away from the road to guide us we trotted off down a snowy track.  Fortunately the ruined caravanserai was quite easy to spot.  A modestly sized building, which could easily have been mistaken for a barn were it not for the inscription in Persian and Armenian over the main entrance, the caravanserai dates to 1319 and the vaulted chambers inside were used as a secure resting place by merchants travelling along the Silk Road.

Kotrats caravanserai

Kotrats caravanserai (clockwise from top): the ruins are in the middle of a field; inside are three vaulted chambers; over the main entrance is an inscription in Armenian and Persian

By the time we got back to the car we were hungry and as we drove the final 17km to Goris the weather turned into a steady downpour, making us very glad to arrive at our friendly B&B, home for the next few nights.

Yerevan, Armenia

Yerevan was the starting point for our exploration of Armenia and Georgia and in early March it was chilly, with snow on the ground and freezing fog obscuring our view most mornings, but pretty much every afternoon the sun broke through and we enjoyed its mixture of old and new buildings, public parks and lots of art.

St Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral

The St Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral looked very atmospheric in the snow and fog. It was consecrated in 2001 having been built to celebrate 1700 years of Christianity in Armenia.

In the 1920s there was a grand plan to redesign Yerevan, it took a few years to be completed but Republic Square was the centre of that plan and today is the focal point of the city.  Around its sides are impressive government buildings in the pink tufa stone characteristic of Yerevan, and in the centre is a pedestrianised square which is supposedly paved to look like a traditional Armenian carpet from above.  I’m not sure that it manages to look like a carpet, but in the summer I’m sure it’s bustling with crowds watching the musical fountains whose pools were still empty after the winter when we visited.

Republic Square

Government offices and the History Museum of Armenia (right) flank the ‘carpet’ section of Republic Square

Cafesjian Art Centre

At the northern edge of the city centre is the Cafesjian Art Centre, also known as the Cascade due to its stepped appearance and fountains (also not working in March)

The Cafesjian Art Centre is a modern art space unlike anything we’ve seen before.  Housed in a huge staircase with fountains, called the Cascade, it houses sculptures beside the escalators which run between the levels and an external sculpture park in the gardens at the front and on the building’s terraces with a funky range of modern art.  On each internal level are galleries including two permanent exhibitions with huge pieces commissioned specifically for the museum – a mural of the History of Armenia by Grigor Khanjyan and a relief carving of the epic David of Sassoon.

Cafesjian Art Centre

Cafesjian Art Centre (clockwise from left): escalators run inside the building; ‘The Knot’ by Stephen Kettle is made of Welsh slate; ‘Gendrd I’ by Barry Flanagan is situated in the external sculpture garden

Mother Armenia

Following the steps above the Cascade building we came out at Victory Park which contains a fun fair and a large statue representing Mother Armenia

We also visited a couple of smaller art museums including the excellent museum dedicated to Yervand Kochar, a contemporary of Picasso, whose 4D sculptures were unlike anything we’ve seen before – rotating pieces of curved metal, slotted together and painted on all sides to create something not quite like a painting or a sculpture – Kochar called them “Painting in Space”.

Vardan Mamikonyan statue

Several of Kochar’s more traditional sculptures are placed around the city including the statue of 5th century military leader Vardan Mamikonyan in the Circular Park, notable for all four of the horse’s feet being off the ground

We visited a LOT of churches and monasteries during our weeks in Armenia and Georgia but on our first afternoon in Yerevan we had one of those serendipitous moments that remind us why we travel. We’d read about a small church surrounded by apartment blocks and as we approached at 5pm its bells were ringing.  We entered just as a service started and sat quietly at the back watching people come and go while priests chanted, candles were lit and incense pervaded the air.

Zoravor Surp Astvatsatsin Church

The Zoravor Surp Astvatsatsin Church doesn’t look so remarkable from the outside, but inside it felt other worldly

On Tsitsernakaberd hill overlooking the city sits the genocide memorial, a sobering monument to the thousands of Armenians who lost their lives in ethnic cleansing carried out by the Ottoman Empire in 1915-22. The well laid out museum chronicles the story and includes historical documents, photographs, personal possessions and testimonies.  It reminded us of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall and the atomic bomb memorial museums in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Outside, the eternal flame burns in a circle of 12 slabs which is beside a splintered needle representing the provinces of Western Armenia lost to Turkey in a post WWI deal between Ataturk and Lenin.

Armenian Genocide Memorial

As we exited the museum a Russian delegation was visiting the monument and laying flowers so we had to wait for them to leave before we could approach the eternal flame

To the west of the city centre there’s a former railway tunnel that runs down the hill to the park beside the Hrazdan river. It’s been converted for pedestrian use and is full of graffiti, nevertheless it probably wouldn’t be all that interesting were it not for the unusual zig-zag lighting which makes for a great photo.

Kond pedestrian tunnel

Kond pedestrian tunnel

Armenians are very proud of their culture, and nowhere is this more obvious than at the Matenadaran, literally “book depository” where historical documents and precious manuscripts are kept and displayed. Honestly, I don’t think we got the most out of this museum, the manuscripts had English labels with their age and what they were (e.g. gospel) but there wasn’t any explanation of the context or history contained and we wished we’d paid extra for a guided tour. Still, the illuminated documents, some of them over 1000 years old were very beautiful.

Matenadaran

In front of the Matenadaran is a statue of Mesrop Mashtots the creator of Armenia’s alphabet

Food is always high up on our list of things to explore when we visit a new country and we struck gold in our choice of Airbnb room in the apartment of Astghik and her family. Each morning her mother, Shoghik, produced some new homemade wonder from her fridge or oven for us to try.  With a bizarre combination of her limited English, our very limited Russian, sign language and Google Translate she explained to us how each item was made, from homecured meat (basturma), preserved cheese (khorats panir) and pickles to pumpkin swirl cheesecake and the best coffee in Armenia.  

Consequently our Armenian vocabularly is about 50% food words and when we finally visited the large GUM market we recognised a lot of what we saw.  In the summer months I think the fresh produce would play more of a starring role but in the winter there were nuts and preserved fruit galore alongside the butchers, greengrocers, spice stalls and clothes sellers and a fabulous second-hand “junk shop” like corner of the upper level which is where we agreed we would find the furnishings for our Yerevan apartment if we lived here!

GUM market, Yerevan

One corner if the market hall is devoted to the huge Armenian flatbreads called lavash

No sooner had we entered the market than the dried fruit and nut sellers started to bombard us with samples and start off on their spiel at breakneck speed (usually in Russian). This was a little intimidating and we were wandering along trying to keep our heads down when an enthusiastic vendor started thrusting spices under our nose and feeding us samples of his barberries. We politely agreed that they smelt wonderful but thank you we don’t want any, undeterred he took us to his store room at the side of the market hall and started plying us with samples of pomegranate wine and apricot vodka (we refused the latter as it was 10.30am but it smelt wonderful). We gave in and bought a litre of the pomegranate wine and he decanted from the large container into an old Coke bottle before we made our escape!

GUM market, Yerevan

Yerevan’s GUM market (clockwise from top left): orderly displays of dried fruit and nuts; salad and herbs; go on, pretend you don’t want to delve into this lot for treasure; there was a lot of locally produced honey for sale

We’d read of the long tradition of viniculture in this part of the world but didn’t expect to encounter good beer.  However, during my research on Yerevan I’d come across Dargett Craft Beer, a microbrewery serving interesting craft beers.  Oh, and it was good!  We visited three times and (with the help of their taster flights) tried almost all of the 20ish beers on offer, and there wasn’t a bad one among them.  My favourite was the apricot ale.

Dargett Craft Beer

On our final afternoon in the city we took a tour of one of the city’s two brandy factories, the Noy Brandy Company.  Originally set up in the 19th century it closed down and fell into disrepair in the second half of the 20th century.  It’s now been renovated and reopened complete with cellars full of old wine barrels (though they only produce brandy here now).  During the Soviet era Armenian brandy was prized across the USSR and Noy are proud that they are still the official brandy supplier to the Kremlin.

Noy Brandy Factory tasting

Trying brandies in the Noy Brandy Company’s tasting room

Before our visit we’d read and seen pictures of Mt Ararat which is supposedly visible from many points in Yerevan.  It’s the mountain where Noah’s Ark came to rest and is sacred to Armenians though it is now across the border in Turkey and they can only look at it.  Unfortunately for us it was quite shy and seemed to be shrouded in cloud most of the time so that we didn’t even get a peek for the whole week that we were there.

Cuba Round Up

What photo takes you right back to Cuba?

Trinidad Plaza MayorCuba’s architecture was a highlight for us and the colonial Plaza Mayor in Trinidad was a great example

How much does it cost to travel in Cuba?

Excluding our return flights from the UK, we spent £3,165 during our 45 days in Cuba – a daily average of £70.35 for two people (remarkably close to our two year trip budget!). The Cuban convertible peso (CUC) is pegged to the US dollar and the average exchange rate that we got in April/May 2016 was CUC$1 = £0.73.

We took the majority of our money in cash – either GBP or Euros are exchanged everywhere, US dollars have a 10% exchange surcharge so I wouldn’t recommend carrying those. Some money exchanges rejected notes which had writing on or were torn, but in the end we had them all accepted – the offices in more touristy cities (Havana, Trinidad) seemed to be less fussy. At the end of the trip we had to withdraw some cash on our credit card and discovered that Cuban ATMs don’t accept Mastercard (I think Visa is fine) and so we had to get an over the counter cash advance which was charged to our card in US dollars and hence was subject to the 10% surcharge.

Cuba expenses pie chart

Cuba budget info

  • We stayed in casa particulars (guesthouses) for every night of our stay, except one night spent in the shelter on Pico Turquino. The rate was a pretty consistent CUC$25 per night (room only) across the country except in Havana and Varadero where we paid CUC$30).
  • It’s not really possible to exist solely on street food in Cuba and so, in addition to taking breakfast in our casa particular (CUC$5 each) we often had dinner there as well which cost CUC$8-10 each. Restaurant meals were comparably priced though Havana was often much more expensive and we found that high prices rarely translated into high quality.
  • We found both the Viazul and Cubanacan intercity bus services to be a comfortable and reasonably priced way to get around the country.
  • Within cities we tended to walk everywhere so the relatively high spend for local transportation is taxis to and from bus stations which we found to be quite expensive (possibly because the scarcity of cars pushes up the price but no doubt we were charged tourist prices as well). This category also contains a few day trips that we took by taxi as there was no public transport option available.
  • Visas – we paid CUC$25 each to extend our 30 day tourist card (included in the cost of our flight) for another month.

Summarise Cuba in three words.

  • Dilapidated – from the buildings to the classic cars, it seems like a lot of Cuba has been barely maintained since the Revolution in 1959
  • Rum – made from the sugar cane which generated early wealth for Cuba, the national drink is everywhere and the base of many a cocktail!
  • Music – upbeat and very danceable, Cuba’s musical heritage is rich

You really know you’re in Cuba when…

.. your taxi is a 30 year old Russian model that needs a jump start!

What one item should you definitely pack when going to Cuba?

Plenty of patience for all the queues you’ll have to wait in – to exchange money, in shops, at the bus station…

Cuban Food

Before we visited we’d heard that Cuban food is not very exciting so we didn’t have high hopes. There were high points, mostly in the dinners that we had in our casa particulars, but for the most part we found the food to be fairly dull and certainly not a highlight of the trip as it has been in so many of the countries that we’ve visited. We were surprised that, compared to their neighbours (either the surrounding Caribbean islands or nearby Mexico), neither chillis nor other spices were commonly used. It is perhaps telling that the best meal we had (by a long way) was at a Spanish restaurant – Castropol on the Malecon in Havana which is run by the local Spanish Asturianas society.

Breakfast

Breakfast in casa particulars is very standard and although priced separately to the room it seems to be expected that you’ll take it – fresh fruit (some combination of papaya, pineapple, guava or mango), freshly made juice (usually papaya or guava, on good days mango!), coffee (filter, pretty strong, never instant and we were very rarely offered tea), eggs (fried, scrambled or omelette as you like), bread (always white, sometimes dried out and crispy), sometimes cheese or ham (both processed) to go with the bread, or as a sandwich. It was tasty enough but got to be pretty boring by the end of 6 weeks!

Casa particular breakfast

Street food and snacks

It’s fairly easy to find a bite to eat when you’re wandering the streets in Cuban cities. Pizza shops are everywhere and, while it’s not what an Italian would recognise, the pizzas are served hot from the oven, the puffy dough topped with a slick of tomato paste and a sparse sprinkling of cheese, handed to you folded in half with a small piece of cardboard or paper to protect your fingers (asbestos hands required!). They became our go-to lunchtime filler, not so healthy, but Andrew would have had at least one a day if I’d have let him… At MN$5-10 each (about £0.15-0.30) Cuban pizzas are delicious and cheap.

Peso pizzaAndrew looking very happy with his first Cuban pizza even though he had to deploy his handkerchief to protect his fingers from the steaming dough!

As an alternative to pizza, sandwiches are the other lunchtime option, also sold from little hole-in-the-wall shops. The bread is always soft and white with highly processed ham and/or cheese to fill it (interestingly cheese was often more expensive than ham). Sometimes we had bread with mayonnaise (i.e. a mayo sandwich, better than it sounds), or bread with tomatoes (the best option if it’s available), and occasionally fritters of savoury dough or mashed potato. If we were very lucky we found a stall selling pan con lechon, roast pork sandwiches.

Street food vendorWe bought sandwiches and cake from this friendly vendor in Bayamo

Cuban street foodStreet food (clockwise from top left): peso pizza; ham sandwich; pan con lechon; fritter sandwich

Cuban sandwichIn bars and cafes sandwiches were often toasted. The ‘Cuban sandwich’ contains roast pork, ham and cheese and somehow manages to transcend all three

Meat

Chicken and pork were the most common options, usually just fried with some garlic or onions, but the best meals we had were beef and lamb. Ropa vieja literally means ‘old clothes’ but it’s a lot tastier than that sounds, imagine pulled pork but made from beef in a sauce made from tomatoes and peppers. We were served lamb casserole a couple of times in different casa particulars and each time it was meltingly tender and deeply flavoured – why don’t they do something like this with all the chicken and pork?!

Cuban meatsClockwise from top left: fried pork with garlic; Ropa Vieja is not pretty but it is tasty; chicken leg; lamb casserole for dinner in Viñales

LiverWe didn’t come across much offal but when I saw the unfamiliar word ‘hidalgo’ on a menu and found in our dictionary that it was liver I knew what I would be having for lunch! The liver was sauteed with onions and green peppers and made a nice change from the more usual options

Seafood and fish

Cuba is a long, narrow island which means that you’re never far from the sea and so it’s hardly surprising that fish and seafood are readily available. We had various kinds of fish as well as prawns, lobster and even octopus. Again we found that they would most commonly be prepared quite simply by either frying or grilling perhaps with a little garlic or a tomato based sauce.

Cuban seafoodClockwise from left: At St Pauli I had octopus salad and Andrew had prawns cooked with garlic; a mackerel like fish in tomato sauce; lobster in Baracoa

Rice and beans

The standard starch with a meal is rice, either plain white or the rather politically incorrectly named ‘moros y cristianos’ (moors and christians), a mix of rice with black beans which was our favoured option. I really enjoy bean soups and I think they’re probably a staple of Cuban home cooking but we hardly ever saw them on restaurant menus – I suspect it’s considered poor people’s food. We did sometimes get bean soup as a starter for dinner in casa particulars and when I requested it for dinner from our casa in Camagüey she looked very pleased to be asked for it. The beans are usually either black or kidney beans and the soup might also contain bits of ham, peppers and pumpkin.

Black bean soupBlack bean soup in Camagüey – delicious but not easy to photograph!

Vegetables

A salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and white cabbage was the customary accompaniment with dinner. If we were lucky it had some grated carrot, beetroot or cooked french beans on the side too. Otherwise the only vegetables that we were served, apart from a rare bowl of pumpkin soup, were plantains or green bananas. Plantains seem to fall somewhere between vegetables and starch in terms of how they are used in Cuba. Sometimes deep-fried until they are crispy (chicharritas), sometimes fried but soft in the middle, sometimes baked into a tart shell and filled with prawns or meat as a starter, they seemed to function a bit like potatoes.

Cucumbers and tomatoesWhen we didn’t feel like pizza or a processed cheese sandwich for lunch we bought a handful of tomatoes and cucumbers and a loaf of bread.

PlantainsPlantains in their various guises (clockwise from top left): this market stall gives an idea of how much plantains are used; fried plantains as a side dish; plantain shells stuffed with prawns and cheese as a starter; plantain crisps

Sweets

Satisfying your sweet tooth in Cuba is easy and cheap. Cakes, biscuits and pastels (little pasties containing guava jam) are available from street vendors and hole-in-the-wall shops and generally cost MN$1-3 each (£0.03-0.09). The cakes are heavy on the icing which looks like swirls of cream but is actually marshmallow fluff! We found quite a lot of sweets made from nuts, as well as the coconut based cucuruchu in Baracoa, we saw bars of pounded peanut in several places and cones of caramelised peanuts were for sale in all of the main squares on an evening. In restaurants flan (Spanish creme caramel) is the most common option.

Cuban sweetsCuban sweets (clockwise from top left): cakes with a generous swirl of marshmallow fluff; bars of ground peanuts and guava membrillo for sale; flan; a cake vendor roams the streets in Matanzas

Ice cream cafeCubans love their ice cream and there are cheap ice cream cafes in every city

Drinks

Soft drinks in Cuba fall into two categories: freshly made fruit juices or cans of Cuban made fizzy pop. Alongside the usual cola, lemonade and fizzy orange options is Malta, a malted soft drink which smells exactly like a Soreen malt loaf – too sweet for me but Andrew liked it. At peso food stands what looked like squash was served by the glass but as we weren’t sure about the water used to make it we never tried one. Coffee is also available at peso food stands and usually cost MN$1 (~£0.03) for an espresso size cup poured from a Thermos flask. Tea is practically unknown so if you’d struggle without it I would advise you to pack some teabags!

Cuban soft drinksMalta, natural lemonade made from lime juice and sugar topped up with mineral water and tuKola

Sugar cane juiceSugar cane juice (guarapo) in an idyllic setting near Viñales

As sugar is a major crop in Cuba, it’s unsurprising that the most common alcohol is rum which is distilled from sugar cane juice. Rum based cocktails, e.g. mojito, daiquiri, piña colada, were the order of the day if we weren’t sampling one of the various Cuban brands of lager-like beer. In Havana, there’s a micro brewery in Plaza Vieja in the heart of the old town. We tried one of their brews and really enjoyed it but sadly the service was so awful that we couldn’t bring ourselves to go back.

Cuban alcoholClockwise from top left: daiquiris; mojitos; Cristal was my favourite of the local beers; piña coladas