Tag Archives: beach

Batumi, Georgia

When we were planning our trip to Georgia I’d wanted to include some time in the Black Sea beach resort city of Batumi even though Julie, Jo and I aren’t really beach people, and by that I mean that we prefer a hike, city walk or good museum to a sun lounger. Not that sunbathing was on the cards in late March as it would have been far too cold!

Batumi, Georgia

Batumi: Georgia’s beach resort. No fine sand but it is clean and over 6km long

With much of the same reasoning behind hiring a car in Armenia, having picked up another in Kutaisi meant it was easier to justify a couple of nights in Batumi as there were a few sights we’d read about that piqued our curiosity, such as the Black Sea Boulevard, a tower with a ferris wheel at the top (how does that work? – we had to find out!) and the region’s khachapuri speciality is the iconic bread-boat filled with cheese and topped with an egg. Much like Naples being the home of pizza and serving the best we’ve had, would this be our home of khachapuri?

Batumi Tower, Batumi, Georgia

There it is – the ferris wheel at the top of the tallest building in Georgia. Originally built as a Technology University, it is currently destined to become a hotel

Batumi is the third largest city in Georgia and it is easy to see that the laid back vibe is popular with Georgians, Armenians, Russians and Turks alike. Accommodations a-plenty (and really cheap off season) running the whole spectrum from self-service apartments to international luxury hotel chains and they’re building new apartment blocks at an impressive rate too.

Old Town, Batumi, Georgia

Batumi’s Old Town has a medieval fairground attraction quality to it

We started our tour of the city in the respectfully renovated Evropas Moedani or Europe Square, consisting of lovely two-tone brick buildings set around a large open square with one of those ground-squirting water features you can play chicken with and a tall statue of a woman holding a golden fleece. Why’s that you ask? So the story goes, Jason and his 49 Argonauts sailed past Batumi, along the Rioni river a little further up the coast and inland to Kutaisi where they took the Golden Fleece from a dragon. The legend of the Golden Fleece is based in history: Georgians used sheepskins to sift for gold in mountain rivers!

Medea monument, Batumi, Georgia

The Medea monument in Europe Square. In Greek mythology, Medea was a daughter of King Aieti, the king of Kolkheti in present day western Georgia. Medea helped Jason to steal the legendary Golden Fleece

Working our way towards the coast we stopped at the Adjara Arts Museum, a nicely sized gallery with a varied collection of Georgian, Russian and European artwork, followed by the Cathedral of the Mother of God in an imposing Gothic Revival style that the Soviets had previously repurposed as a high voltage laboratory!

Adjara Arts Museum, Batumi

A solid and varied collection with a couple of standout pieces, such as a bold pomegranate by Kudba and a portrait of 2 old men by Gabashvili

Cathedral of the Mother of God, Batumi

Batumi’s Cathedral of the Mother of God is an impressively imposing Gothic building. No danger danger of high voltage anymore

Batumi’s main attraction is the 6km coastal boulevard, a wide promenade with separate cycle lanes and lined with large, quirky art on the coastline side and impressive hotels and apartment blocks on the other. Crescendoing at the northern end is a wide open space dominated by a large ferris wheel, the other ferris wheel I mentioned earlier that sticks out of the 13th floor of the Batumi Tower – the tallest building in the country – and a monument to Georgian script and culture called the Alphabet Tower.

Boulevard, Batumi, Georgia

Batumi’s Boulevard. We reckon it’ll be a lot busier when the weather’s nicer..

Boulevard art collage, Batumi, Georgia

Batumi’s Boulevard is lined with quirky art, including these giant shoes that made us all look like midgets, a series of outlined figures with hearts and what we think was a cross between a snail and the ‘@’ symbol

Boulevard art at night collage, Batumi, Georgia

There’s just as much to see at night too, the most impressive illuminated artwork being Ali & Nino (centre) who change colours as they pass through each other!

A special mention goes to the dancing fountains that our guidebook said wouldn’t be running this early in the year so we were very pleasantly surprised when we stumbled upon them. We’ve seen a few water displays set to music and lights before, but these were by far the most coordinated.

Dancing Fountains, Batumi

Batumi has the best dancing fountains we’ve seen

At this point in our travels around Georgia we’d accomplished our side quest of trying all of the styles of khachapuri, the country’s national dish of bread and (typically) cheese. As mentioned, the western region of Adjara is home to the most iconic of khachapuri styles – the Adjaruli khachaphuri..

Adjaruli khachapuri, Batumi

The Adjaruli – a bread boat filled with molten cheese topped with an egg and an generous knob of butter. Genius.

Georgian khachapuri

Gotta catch them all! Source: Gudaturi

While the Imeruli and Megruli are available across the country and almost all varieties can be found in Tbilisi, we can confirm that just as for pizza in Naples, the local pride in Batumi makes for the tastiest of the tasty khachapuri. Honourable mention and a close second goes to the meat-filled kubdari we watched being skilfully made in Ushguli.

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

Baracoa, Cuba

Baracoa, perched on Cuba’s eastern edge is the island’s oldest city founded in 1511 and surely also one of its smallest. It is hemmed in by mountains and rainforest, having a microclimate all its own and was isolated from the outside world until the spectacular La Farola road was opened in 1965 connecting the town with Guantanamo City and the south coast.

View from La FarolaSpectacular views from the bus as we climbed through the mountains on our way to Baracoa along La Farola

El YunqueThe table top mountain called El Yunque, the Anvil, is the symbol of Baracoa and is visible from many places in town including the roof terrace of our guesthouse.

Baracoa’s tiny cathedral (about the size of your average parish church) is at the centre of the town and is home to the Cruz de la Parra, the only surviving wooden cross of 29 planted in Cuba by Columbus on his first voyage and ‘discovery’ of the island in 1492.

Baracoa centreLooking along Baracoa’s walking street towards the cathedral

Cruz de la ParraThe Cruz de la Parra has been carbon dated to prove that it dates from the correct period but the wood is native Cuban and was not carried from Europe by Columbus as legend has it

The town itself doesn’t have much in the way of sights but we enjoyed strolling along the slightly dilapidated seafront to the even more dilapidated baseball stadium at the end of the beach. We also spent a fascinating hour nursing a beer on a balcony overlooking a street that was being resurfaced. It was amazing to see the hard work done by hand that we’re used to seeing machines do.

Baracoa baseball stadiumBaseball is Cuba’s national sport but its stadium was host to football practice when we poked our noses in

One morning we walked up the hill through residential streets, puzzling over why all the cockerels seemed to have no feathers on their legs or bellies until we realised they were for cockfighting.

Fighting cockerelCockfighting is a popular sport in Cuba judging by the number of cockerels we saw on a short walk through Baracoa’s streets

Dripping with sweat after the short but steep climb we arrived at the Archaeology Museum which has been imaginatively set up in a series of caves where burial chambers of the Taíno peoples had been found. The Taíno arrived in Cuba from Venezuela around 1050AD and were living there peacefully in farming communities when the Spanish arrived in the 15th century. Many died from European diseases and more when they were pressed into harsh slavery by the settlers.

Baracoa Museum of ArchaeologyThe entrance to Baracoa’s Museum of Archaeology

The displays were not so exciting but the cave setting was a quirky idea, the attendant was friendly and gave us a good explanation in English and the view over the town was superb (it’s from here that we spotted the cemetery that we visited later in our stay).

Museum of Archaeology exhibitsMuseum of Archaeology (clockwise from top left): display cases inside the cave; Taíno artefacts; a replica of the Ídolo de Tabaco, one of the most important Taíno finds in the Caribbean; burial chamber

View over BaracoaThe viewpoint above the museum provides a reward for the uphill climb

We had initially planned a hiking excursion to El Yunque, but changed our minds after hearing the descriptions of the Humboldt National Park, 40km north-west of Baracoa, and went there instead. The road to the north is not in very good condition and so our group of 15 plus our guide Benny were loaded into three jeeps for the dusty hour and a half that it took to bump our way there.

Jeep transport to Humboldt National ParkStretching our legs during a brief pause in the drive to Humboldt National Park

The Humboldt National Park is famous for its biodiversity with lots of endemic species. 70% of the plants as well as lots of amphibians, reptiles and birds are found nowhere else, and the park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.  We’d hoped that we would see quite a bit of wildlife and certainly at the beginning of the hike we did with Benny stopping to point out Tocororos, woodpeckers and parrots as well as different kinds of plants. But as the path narrowed the group became too spread out to see much and the pace felt too fast for us to fully appreciate the forest.

Flora and fauna in Humboldt National ParkFlora and fauna in Humboldt National Park (clockwise from top left): Cuba’s national bird, the Tocororo; termites; the colourful Rat Pineapple is related to the normal pineapple but doesn’t produce an edible fruit; this huge millipede was about 25cm long and thicker than my thumb

Swimming opportunities seem to be an obligatory feature of excursions in Cuba – it felt like every time someone was trying to sell us an excursion it ended with ‘a chance to swim in the river / pool / sea’ (frankly this usually feels like a waste of excursion time to me but clearly I’m in the minority here).  Anyway this trip was no different; just before lunch we stopped at the top of a waterfall where anyone who wanted to could jump into the pool below and swim downriver to the curve where we would break for lunch. About ten of the group did, the rest of us followed the path along the river to meet them below.

Swimming in the river in Humboldt National ParkSome of our group swimming down the river to join us at the lunch spot

Crossing the river in the Humboldt National ParkAfter lunch we had to cross the river 8 times to get back to where we’d left the jeeps. I was glad that I’d carried my flip-flops to cross the stony riverbed, Andrew had to do it barefoot.

On the way back to Baracoa we stopped at Playa Maguana.  It was our first Cuban beach experience and the white sand and turquoise ocean were just as breathtaking in real life as they are in the travel brochure photos.  The sea gets deep quite quickly, and the wave swells were high enough to make bobbing up and down in the water fun.  It also helped that we could take turns with the others in the group watching bags and go into the water together.

Playa MaguanaPlaya Maguana, there’s even a guy who’ll bring you a drink direct to your beach towel

The Lonely Planet touts Baracoa as the best place for food in Cuba.  Now that’s not saying much as in general the island’s cuisine is not the most exciting, but still I had hoped for more than just one sauce, albeit tasty, which is served with different kinds of seafood.

Prawns in coconut milk saucePrawns with the Baracoan sauce made from coconut milk, tomatoes, garlic and spices

Cucuruchos are the other regional specialty, a cone of palm leaf stuffed with an almost sickly sweet mixture of fruits, coconut and honey. Baracoa is the only region in Cuba where chocolate is grown and processed (the smell wafting from the factory just outside town reminded me of driving past the Rowntrees factory in York) and we really enjoyed the huge flask of hot chocolate that was included with our breakfast each morning.

CucuruchosPeeling a cucurucho