Category Archives: Places

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.

UNESCO Churches and Monasteries of Armenia

In 301 AD Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as the state religion, and today 3 sites covering 5 places of worship are recognised by UNESCO’s World Heritage List. While planning our trip we felt like almost every other thing we read was church this or monastery that – we were worried that we might quickly tire of them, that they’d all start blurring into each other and we would fail to appreciate their differences and significance.

I’m glad to say that wasn’t the case!

Geghard Monastery

Geghard Monastery, Armenia

Geghard Monastery in early spring

So the story goes, Geghard Monastery was founded by Gregory the Illuminator in the 4th century at the site of a cave with a natural spring. Geghard is a common and easy day trip from the capital Yerevan, and as well as being an impressive sight in a spectacular location, it’s important because Gregory is credited with the country’s Christianisation.

Geghard Monastery collage

Clockwise from top-left: Julie photographing the chandelier in the main chapel; Zhamatun, the second of the cave chapels, viewed from a hole in the floor of the Upper Jhamatun; Julie tasting the spring water – very clean in taste (no sulphur or mineral aftertaste) but very cold!; Carved relief of a ram’s head, two lions and an eagle clutching a lamb which is believed to be the coat of arms of the family that had the cave monastery extended in the 13th century

At the beginning of March we pretty much had the place to ourselves, but out of the sunshine exploring the chapels and caves was pretty cold. Completely worth it though, as the carvings throughout the monastery are so detailed, particularly the most recent ones. We especially liked the boldness of the older carvings in the caves and the finer work in the corridor to the upper gavit.

The Temple of Garni

The Temple of Garni, Armenia

The Temple of Garni, the only remaining structure of pre-Christian Armenia

A visit to The Temple of Garni is usually combined with Geghard Monastery as it’s pretty much on the way. Our day trip also included a stop at the modern Charents’ Arch but unfortunately the morning’s haze hadn’t quite cleared enough for us to see it framing Mt Ararat.

The Temple of Garni isn’t on the UNESCO Heritage list, but it is believed to have been built in the 1st century AD so it’s nearly 2,000 years old! We loved the detail of the stone carvings around the roofline, and the very big steps at the front to get to the altar inside.

Temple of Garni collage

Clockwise from top left: The remains of the mosaic floor in the Roman bath house; Detail of the temple roofline carvings; the remains of the St Sion Church with a view down the Garni valley

The remains of St Sion Church sit adjacent to the temple but we could only just see them peeking out from the snow, however we were able to see through the door of a building nearby which houses the mosaic flooring remains of a Roman bath house – nowhere near as well preserved or extensive as those at the Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily – but fascinating to see such a breadth of history in one place.

Zvartnots Cathedral

Zvartnots Cathedral Ruins, Armenia

The ruins of the 7th century Zvartnots Cathedral

The ruins of Zvartnots Cathderal and the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin are the second UNESCO site that we visited in Armenia on another day trip from Yerevan. According to the small museum on site, Zvartnots Cathedral was briefly the centre of Christianity in Armenia, and its unique design was inspirational for the restoration of the much larger dome of Haghia Sophia in Constantinople, now Istanbul.

The remnants of Zvartnots Cathedral, clockwise from top-left: a pair of carved eagle capitals; a model of what Zvartnots may have looked like; and the many pieces of it which lay around in the surrounding fields like a massive jigsaw puzzle

According to the information pages on the excellent Armenia Heritage website, the surrounding buildings were a palace used by the Catholicos of All Armenia (i.e. the head of the Armenian Church) and included a throne room, a Roman bath house and a large winery. Palatial indeed! We really enjoyed exploring the ruins and trying to imagine how impressive the cathedral and its surrounding buildings would have been.

Echmiadzin Cathedral

Echmiadzin Cathedral

Echmiadzin Cathedral. There’s always something being repaired when we visit the sights of a country!

Echmiadzin (officially Vagharshapat) is the 4th largest city in Armenia having once been the capital, but the reason for our visit was the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin – the centre of Christianity in the country – and specifically the Mother Cathedral of Holy Echmiadzin, the oldest cathedral in the world.

The colourfully carved entranceway and the frescoes of the main cathedral’s dome

Inside it felt open and airy despite its relatively small size, and easily accommodated the many worshippers and handful of tourists. We liked the restrained frescoes and the 3 rooms of the treasury museum behind the main altar that includes among its relics the right-hand of St John the Baptist and the Holy Lance, said to have pierced the side of Christ.

Clockwise from top-left: Reliquary of St John the Baptist; The Holy Lance and its reliquary; Julie in the first room of the Cathedral Museum

As well as the cathedral, the Mother See, like the Vatican, comprises a number of other buildings including a seminary, and there are some very modern additions like the Gate of St Gregory and my favourite, the circular Church of the Holy Archangels.

Church of the Holy Archangels, Armenia

As well as the cathedral and its treasury museum, we liked the new Gate of St Gregory and the funky tall circular Church of the Holy Archangels.

Sanahin Monastery

Sanahin Monastery, Armenia

Sanahin Monastery, tucked away on the fringes of the village

Near the end of our fortnight in Armenia we stayed in the small northern mining town of Alaverdi, an excellent base from which to visit Armenia’s final UNESCO site – the monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin.

While it is possible to visit both in a day, or even half a day by taxi, we split them up so we’d have plenty of time to explore. Sanahin is the closer of the two to Alaverdi, though they’re both a short but very steep 1st gear marshrutka ride from the bottom of the Debed Canyon to their respective villages and they’re very different.

Sanahin Monastery collage

Details of Sanahin Monastery: the carved pillars and walls of the main gavit which we saw at all of the churches and monasteries in Armenia; One of the carved gravestones depicting the profession of the deceased, we think he was a musician

Sanahin looks compact, squeezed into a forest clearing between the edge of the village and the foot of the hills but it feels big, especially in the main covered entranceway or gavit, the floor covered in the gravestones of royalty and those once important in society, often depicting the interred’s profession. However, our favourites were the huge square bell tower with red brick crosses incorporated into its walls, and the fine examples of two khachkars (literally “cross-stones”) standing to attention that flank the main entrance.

Sanahin Bell Tower, Armenia

Detail of the wonderful carved red-brick inlay of the bell tower at the Sanahin Monastery

Mikoyan Musuem, Sanahin, Armenia

Just down the hill from Sanahin Monastery is the museum of the Mikoyan brothers. One worked for 60 years in the Soviet Politburo and the other designed the USSR’s first jet fighter, the MiG

Haghpat Monastery

Haghpat Monastery, Armenia

Haghpat Monastery with its commanding view over the village and the canyon

In contrast to Sanahin, Haghpat Monastery sits on a lofty perch overlooking the village and the canyon. When we arrived we thought it was closed as all of the gates were shut, but after wandering around the perimeter of the old walls a local farmer gestured through so we crept in and started exploring.

Sanahin Monastery collage

Clockwise from top left: detail of the carving of the monastery’s founder’s sons Smbat (who later became a king) and Gurgen holding a model of the church; the Amenaprkitch (All Savior) Khachkar of 1273 is the only one we saw in Armenia with a painting on it; and the view of the valley canyon with Sanahin just visible on the left ridge

As we worked our way around a youngish guy with a big bunch of keys started opening up the buildings and encouraging us to enter. A Polish couple arrived and he seemed more comfortable talking to them in Russian – we followed them all to the bell tower but unfortunately there was only time for the other couple to climb the tower as the caretaker had to lock up. Still, we’re glad we got to see inside the locked churches!

Hamazasp Gavit, Haghpat, Armenia

The cavernous Hamazasp Gavit is the largest gavit in Armenia at 330m2

As well as the separate bell tower (very different to the one at Sanahin), we liked the vastness of the ancillary buildings – one, the Hamazasp Gavit used as a monks assembly room is the largest gavit in Armenia, and we especially liked the depiction of the two brothers holding a model of the church.

Akhtala Church

Akhtala Church, Armenia

Akhtala hill-top church. Stunning location and not much to look at from the outside, but inside..

After our visit to Haghpat we decided not to wait 1½ hours for the next marshrutka and opted to set off on foot hoping to hitchhike a little further away from Alaverdi to the small village of Akhtala. A transit van, an old Vauxhall Cavalier with a cheery pair of Georgians (one of whom looked like George Clooney!) and a lovely couple in old Lada making a bread delivery later and we were there, the non-UNESCO St. Astvatsatsin church in the Akhtala complex.

We stood at the gates for a minute or so taking in the views (and taking photos, obviously!) when an old gentleman rattling some keys walked past us and gestured to the church. Feeling a bit like we were being frog-marched, we followed and were led inside – Wow.

The colourful main nave frescos of Akhtala, Armenia

It’s an assault of vivid colour! Beautiful, detailed frescoes line the walls though some are in desperate need of a little restoration..

We spent as long as we dared gazing in awe at the colourful, detailed murals while the caretaker quietly stood out of the way occasionally checking his mobile phone. We could easily have spent an hour inside walking around and slowly checking out each of the walls. It looks like repairs have started on the roof so we made a donation and asked if it was OK to look around the grounds.

Akhtala, Armenia

This prompted a short tour.. our caretaker was keen to point out the grave of the last monk to live here who died at the age of 100 in 1972, the old monastery cells in the walls, some kilns near the entrance and a modern sculpture that he was quite keen for us to step through which superstitiously helps your relationship but we both thought framed the monastery quite nicely..

Akhtala, Armenia

Modern sculpture at Akhtala – if only I could recall the Armenian for “Excuse me, sorry, would you mind taking a step backwards please?”

Feeling confident in our hitchhiking abilities, we set off from Akhtala towards the main road and after about 40 minutes and a few attempts we eventually managed to wave down a telecoms engineering van heading our way that had 4 guys in it and 2 spare seats. One of the young guys, Mikahl, graduated with a degree in English and we had a long and interesting conversation with him and his work mates. He also tagged us on Facebook as “English autostoppers” :o)

Mikahl - English Autostoppers

Mikahl tags us on Facebook on our way back to Alaverdi! Thanks again for the lift and the conversation :o)

The thing we’ll remember most that distinguishes Armenian churches and monasteries from any other places of worship we’ve seen so far are the carvings on the outside walls. They are covered in crosses of different sizes and styles, almost like graffiti, and we think they look really good!

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.

Viñales, Cuba

When we were planning our trip to Cuba, we’d decided to skip the green valleys of Cuba’s primary tobacco growing region as we’re non-smokers, we’d see two other national parks in the east and we’d read other travellers’ reports that the weather is unpredictable.

However, once we arrived in Cuba, everyone we met, and I do mean everyone, said that we simply had to fit it in because it’s so beautiful.

We did, and they were right!

Finding ourselves firmly on the typical tourist trail, we were able to try Cubanacan who are the other state-run coach company, which transfers from a lot of the swanky central hotels in Havana and is a lot more convenient (and cheaper) than getting a taxi to the Viazul bus station. The coach trip was pleasant and uneventful, until the final descent into the Valle de Viñales and we caught our first glimpse of the unique mogote strewn landscape..

View of the Viñales countryside from the bus

Our first glimpse of the unique Viñales landscape, lush fields strewn with limestone karsts called ‘mogotes’

From what we could make out, the little town of Viñales exists almost entirely for the service of tourists. The main street is lined with cafes and restaurants, a handful of shops, a bank, and a money exchange, while the rest of the town is comprised of casa particulars – we varied our route through the town’s back streets and it seemed like every house had a room for rent!

View of the church and town square in Viñales

The pretty little church in Viñales

Once we’d settled ourselves into our casa and had a spot of lunch, we picked a direction and went exploring. The main street isn’t very long and we soon found ourselves down a dirt track between the deep red fields dotted with tobacco drying sheds.

A typical trail through the countryside of Viñales - deep red earth and pointed roofs of tobacco leaf drying sheds

We could see from the hoof prints that we’d found one of the popular horse trails. These steep-roofed huts are tobacco drying sheds, the leaves are hung inside like kippers!

Horseback riding is a very popular activity in Viñales, and while we can see the appeal of letting the horse do the work so you can appreciate the scenery, we favoured the cycling option and arranged to hire a couple of bikes through our casa.

Julie and I with mountain bikes in Viñales

Just about to set off with a vague plan in our heads. Delightfully, my rental mountain bike was a ‘Flying Pigeon’!

No sooner had we set off than I attempted to change gears and the chain snapped! While a friendly gentleman helped me look for the missing link in the road, Julie made her way back to our casa to get in touch with the lad who’d rented us the bikes, who just happened to ride past, came over and simply swapped the disabled ‘Flying Pigeon’ for a double suspension ‘Mongoose’. I thanked them both, met up with Julie and we set off again..

Viñales national park entrance, a road heads off into the distance between two large limestone karsts

Just north of the town is the striking official entrance to the Parque Nacional Viñales

Not having intended to visit Viñales, we hadn’t done a lot of research about the area and the bike rental was simply that – here’s a bike, see you later! – no maps, hints, or suggestions! We used a combination of the Lonely Planet and the offline maps of Cuba on my phone to plan out a rough loop that took us past the Cueva del Indio, through a town called the Republica del Chile and the recommended Valle el Silencio.

Viñales countryside

The lush valleys of Viñales – as well as tobacco, the Cubans grow coffee, sugarcane, oranges, bananas, pineapples and avocados here

Julie cycling in the Valle de Viñales

Cycling was a fantastic way to explore this amazing countryside

Viñales is a lovely place to cycle. It’s pretty flat, the scenery is varied and interesting, there are plenty of trails and when we were on the roads there wasn’t much traffic. Outside of the town there are a few places to stop for refreshments and lunch dotted here and there, though the further we travelled they were fewer and farther between. The second half of our route took us out into the wilds and it had gone 3pm by the time we found somewhere for lunch. We’d consumed all of our snacks and 4 bottles of water cycling through the heat of the day, and we hadn’t realised how ready for a break we were!

A glass of sugarcane juice in the Valle el Silencio

A well earned glass of sugarcane juice at our rest-stop in the Valle el Silencio

The eco-farm we found in the Valle el Silencio is very much on the independent tour guide itinerary as it’s well set up for small groups of tourists. We shared a main meal between us which was plenty, and included in the price was a tour of the adjacent organic farm which we were a little reluctant to do at first as we feared it’d be a hard sell. Our bottoms weren’t quite ready to get back onto the bikes so we relented to the tour and it turned out to be really interesting.

Collage of produce growing at tiny organic farm. Green coffee beans, a beehive and cocoa pods

Just some of the organic produce this tiny farm grows. Clockwise from the top: coffee; a beehive for pollination of their fruit trees and honey, of course; a cocoa tree

Our young guide explained that what they grow and harvest here is primarily used in the restaurant and to feed the family. They grow a little bit of everything, I lost count of the different types of fruit but something we hadn’t seen in our travels thus far was cocoa growing on the tree.

The tour also included one of the farmers demonstrating how cigars are made in the countryside and as we’d seen them made by hand in the Partagas factory in Havana, it was fun to spot the differences in their technique and unlike in Partagas he was happy for us to take pictures..

Cigar rolling demonstration

Before the final wrapper leaf is applied, the cigar would be tightly rolled in a scrap of paper for 2 days, a step that he skipped for the purposes of demonstration. And of course they’re for sale, any quantity you like for 3CUCs (£2.10) each

Apart from a short and deeply rutted part of track immediately after our late lunch stop, the remaining trail was easy going and we slowly descended through the Valle el Silencio back to Viñales. We tracked our ride on Strava and logged just over 20 miles!

For our final full day in Viñales we hiked in the other direction from our bicycle ride, notionally in the direction of a large, outdoor painting on the side of a mogote that depicts evolution and is totally panned in TripAdvisor reviews. How bad could it be? Could it be so bad that it’s actually good?

Mural de la Prehistoria, Viñales

Fortunately there’s no entrance fee to stand in wonder at this almost undecipherable eyesore as it’s unmissable from the road

Moving somewhat swiftly on, the farm tracks circled round the defaced mogote and made for a fairly long but gentle walk through peaceful farmland. No noisy polluting engines, just the rustle of the gentle breeze through the fields.

Viñales countryside

Caballo, dinero, por favor

The track eventually met up with the main but not too busy road back into Viñales, and before we knew it we were back. Thank you to those that convinced us to change our plans – we’re really pleased we went – it was a peaceful, un-hassly, nature filled and relaxing change after our time in Havana.

Trinidad, Cuba

Trinidad is one of the most visited destinations in Cuba and we arrived with some trepidation about how much of a tourist trap it would be, but the pretty little colonial city soon charmed us as much as everyone else who goes there. Yes the historical centre bustles with tour groups during the day and there are dozens of overpriced bars and restaurants but you don’t need to venture too far down the cobbled streets to find normal life.

Trinidad streetsPastel coloured houses line the cobbled streets in Trinidad’s historic centre

As well as wandering the streets and taking lots of photos there are a few small museums to seek out. Plaza Mayor is the centre of town and most of the attractions are within one block of it. It’s ringed with museums but, apart from poking our noses into the cathedral, we just visited the Art Gallery on its western edge which was almost more interesting for the 19th century frescoes preserved on its walls than the art on display!

Plaza Mayor, TrinidadPlaza Mayor from the balcony of the art museum. The cathedral is in the top right of the square in the photo

Art Gallery, TrinidadWe liked the wall frescoes better than most of the art in the Art Gallery

Trinidad is a well preserved example of a Spanish colonial city, and was built with the money generated in the sugar plantations in the nearby Valley de los Ingenios. Together the city and the former plantations have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Municipal Museum is set in the one-time home of a sugar plantation owner and shows the opulent wealth that he and his family lived in. Rather bizarrely it’s weekly closing day is on a Friday which hadn’t occured to us as a possible reason for not being able to go in when we first visited.

Municipal Museum, TrinidadA sumptuous mother-of-pearl inlaid bedstead in the Municipal Museum

The yellow bell tower visible from much of the centre (see top left in the photo of Plaza Mayor) and the subject of many a postcard of the city belongs to the former convent of San Francisco de Asís. The building now displays a variety of exhibits about the fight against the counter-revolutionaries who based themselves in the nearby Sierra Escambray in the early 1960s and, according to the museum at least, were backed by the CIA.

View from bell towerEntry to the museum also entitles you to climb the bell tower for panoramic views over the city and to the surrounding mountains

A little way outside the city to the north-east is a TV and radio antenna perched on a hill called Cerro de la Vigía. It’s a steep 30 minute climb up a rough road but from the top there are stunning views down Valley de los Ingenios and out to the sea. We did it in the late afternoon and I’d definitely recommend hiking in the cooler part of the day, though I think sunrise would be better than sunset if you can rouse yourself as the viewpoint faces towards the west.

Radio antennaThe enterprising security guard might even take you out back to stand on the roof of the shed containing the back-up generator (past the no entry sign) before selling you a cold can of beer!

Valley de los IngeniosView down to Valley de los Ingenios (from the top of the generator shed!)

Beers on Cerro de la VigiaAdmiring the sunset view with a cold beer

We hired a taxi to take us around a few of the sights in the Valley de los Ingenios. First up was a viewpoint restaurant which was fine, but for us the view from Cerro de la Vigía was better. Next up was San Isidro de los Destiladeros, the ruins of which are slowly being excavated and restored but are currently in an interesting intermediate state set in lush forest (complete with hordes of mosquitos).

San Isidro de los DestiladerosThe owner’s house and bell tower at San Isidro de los Destiladeros are undergoing restoration works

Ruins of San Isidro de los DestiladerosIn the ruins of the sugar factory we could see how the system of boiling pans would be set over the furnaces to turn the sugar cane juice into molasses

From San Isidro we moved on to Manaca Iznaga, the most touristed of all the sites we visited in the valley. Here the colonial mansion has been turned into a restaurant and the 44m tower which was used to keep an eye on the slaves who did the plantation work is open to tourists with good views from the top. Behind the restaurant is an old sugar press which would have been turned by animals or slaves to extract the juice from the sugar cane.

Tower of Manaca IznagaThe tower at Manaca Iznaga is approached along a path lined with stalls selling local embroidery

View from Manaca Iznaga towerAnother nice view from the top of the tower at Manaca Iznaga

Our final stop in the valley was at Casa Guáimaro. When we arrived we were the only people there and the lady custodian began showing us around the house with its frescoed walls and period furniture explaining the history of the Borrell family who had built it, then in just a few generations lost it, and its subsequent usage as offices, a school and even housing for seven local families! My Spanish isn’t good enough to ask how the wall paintings were preserved during that time, I can only imagine that they had been painted over and then uncovered later. About halfway through the tour the lady began distractedly glancing out of the window and two minutes later we found out why when six bus loads of children on a church trip from Cienfuegos rolled up and started invading all doors. We were handed off to one of the bus drivers to be shown the final two rooms while she tried to contain the crowds…

Casa GuáimaroCasa Guáimaro; the wall paintings in the entrance way shows scenes of European cities; a holy water holder in the small family chapel

We enjoyed the variety of the sights in the Valley de los Ingenios, I had thought that it might get a bit repetitive visiting old sugar plantations but each stop had something different to see. On the way back into the city our driver asked if we’d like to stop at a pottery workshop and we agreed. It was interesting to see the craftsmen working so quickly and uniformly and we admired everything we were shown so our driver was rather confused when we didn’t want to buy anything (I think he would get a commision) but we genuinely don’t have a need for a multi-coloured ceramic mobile or vase.

On our final day, we took a walk away from the bustling touristy centre to the west towards the cemetery passing lots of normal Cuban life on the way with roadside butchers, greengrocers, pizza shops and even a barber who Andrew was able to persuade to cut his hair for just a little more than the locals’ price.

Trinidad local lifeClockwise from top left: a pig’s head hangs outside a butcher’s shop; gateway into the cemetery; pizza for lunch; the barber had a price list on the wall but insisted that the tourist price was different – he looked rather uncomfortable when we pointed out that all hair is the same

In the afternoon we took the tourist bus to the beach, Playa Ancon (for the record we should have believed the taxi driver and hired a colectivo taxi for the same price – we would have had some flexibility over times and it wouldn’t have been such a crush on the way back). After the beautiful beaches we’d visited along the north coast of the island, Playa Ancon was a bit of a disappointment, nice enough but just not as perfect. We took a walk away from the crowds towards the end of the peninsula then, back at the beach, relaxed with a beer in one of the small bars with a view of the waves.

Playa AnconWandering away from the crowds at Playa Ancon