Tag Archives: Food

Travelling in the Georgian Caucasus: Kazbegi and Svaneti

Georgia is a mountainous land.  There’s a low, flattish strip running from the Black Sea in the west to the Azerbaijan border in the south-east, but everywhere else is high ground with the mighty Caucasus mountains forming the country’s northern border with Russia.  Visiting at the end of March we weren’t sure whether the snow would have melted and how accessible the mountains would be but we wanted to try to get to them.

Snowy mountains

Into the mountains! There was still a lot of snow as we crossed the Jvari pass before dropping down a little into Kazbegi

From Sighnaghi we returned to Tbilisi and took another marshrutka along the Georgian Military Highway to Stepantsminda, also known as Kazbegi.  This small town is home to one of the most famous views in the country and if you look at any tourism material about Georgia you’ll almost certainly see a picture of the small monastery perched on a ridge with a towering mountain behind it.  We’d booked rooms in a guesthouse before arriving, saw that it was marked on our offline map and confidently struck out from the bus stop in the centre of town for what looked to be about a five minute walk.

Cloudy Kazbegi view

View from our guesthouse, Homestay Lela and Mari. We originally thought that Mt Kazbek was the snowy section to the right of the monastery, and then we saw the peak poking out from the clouds above!

Suffice to say, the guesthouse wasn’t where the map said, and after knocking on the door of a random lady, walking up and down the street for 20 minutes, bothering several other passersby and three phone calls to the guesthouse who spoke limited English, we were a little nervous about all the trouble we’d caused when our host Gela pulled up next to us in his car. No need to worry! He brushed off our apologies, drove 30 seconds to the house (just round the corner from where the map said it was), presented us with plates full of biscuits and sweets and offered us coffee or tea.  We gratefully accepted a coffee and he confidently added ‘chacha?’  Not wishing to be rude we tentatively accepted a glass of the local firewater, distilled from the second pressing of the grapes, which with Gela’s hospitality swiftly became three and then five shots so that when we later set out to explore the town we were all a little giggly!

Kazbegi

Kazbegi (clockwise from top): the River Terek runs through the town; Soviet era mural adorning the end of a building in the centre; parts of the town are looking a bit run down including this now defunct cable car station

The following morning I woke quite early, peeped around the curtain to see what the weather was like and my jaw dropped.  Mt Kazbek had emerged from the clouds and the pink light of the sunrise was making its way down the peak towards the Gergeti monastery.  We oohed and aahed, taking lots of (almost identical) photos until Gela bundled us all into the car and we sped off up the hill.  We weren’t entirely clear on where we were going but shortly arrived at a small monastery above the town opposite Mt Kazbek. As we got out of the car we saw a young monk hurrying across the snow covered grounds to ring the bell and a few minutes later we were standing at the back of the tiny colourfully frescoed church listening to the monks’ morning prayer chants. Gela gave us each a candle to light and place in front of one of the icons and I said a small thank you to the world for such a magical start to the day.

On our second morning in Kazbegi, Andrew got his camera set up to take a time-lapse of the sunrise.

After breakfast we set off to hike up to the Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity) monastery which we’d been admiring from below since the previous afternoon. We refused the many offers of ‘taxi?’ as we walked through the town, crossed the river and passed through the opposite village of Gergeti. The hike was steep but not difficult and with a few pauses to catch our breath admire the spectacular view we made it up to the monastery in about an hour from the valley floor.

Cows beside the path

Cows beside the path as we pass through Gergeti village on the way to the monastery

Having seen no other tourists on the walk up it was a bit of a shock to find several groups armed with selfie sticks spilling out of cars at the monastery. The church itself is small and architecturally nothing special, it’s really the location that counts here. Even historically, when enemies threatened, the Georgians brought their sacred treasures from Mtskheta and put them in the monastery for safe keeping.

Gergeti Tsminda Sameba church

Andrew, Jo and I in front of the postcard perfect view of Gergeti Tsminda Sameba church

Gergeti Tsminda Sameba monastery

The Gergeti Tsminda Sameba monastery really does have a stunning location

Thermal pool near Kazbegi

On our second day in Kazbegi we walked along the valley to the village of Pansheti. On the way we passed this swimming pool fed from a mineral spring

Overnight train to Zugdidi at Tbilisi station

We took the afternoon marshrutka back to Tbilisi in time to catch the overnight train to Zugdidi. We love sleeping in the rocking motion of a slow train but this one would have been a bit more comfortable if they’d turned the heating down a few notches

We arrived in Zugdidi in north-western Georgia at 6am after an uncomfortably hot overnight train journey.  From there it was a three hour marshrutka ride up increasingly twisty roads with increasingly stunning views to Mestia, the main town of the Svaneti region.  The Svaneti region of the Caucasus has its own distinct culture, food, traditions and even language, and the Svan people are very proud that they’ve never been ruled by outsiders.  The most obvious and distinctive part of their culture are the defensive towers.

Mestia

Mestia and its distinctive defensive towers

We’d seen an example of a Svan tower at the Ethnographic Museum in Tbilisi but here we were able to go inside and climb up to the top even sticking our head through the roof hatch in one case! Some levels had stone floors and others wood but each was small and had bare stone walls.  The tradition of the towers dates back to the Middle Ages and each family had its own attached to the main living hall to be used for protection of the owners and their animals in case of attack from invaders or raiders.  Some of the towers were also used for signalling with fires being lit in a chain down the valley to warn of an impending attack. The excellent museum in Mestia had an exhibit of photographs taken by Italian Vittorio Sella in the 1890s and the town’s architecture is still recognisable 125 years later.

Svan towers (clockwise from left): the tower entrance is part way up the side to aid with defence; Jo climbing up one of the ladders, stone slabs would be used to close these holes in case of attack; only the top floor of the tower has windows

Although Mestia is at roughly the same altitude as Kazbegi, around 1500m, the sunny spring weather that we’d experienced in the eastern mountains didn’t quite seem to have arrived here yet.  There was still snow on the ground and on our second day we were more or less snowed in as the fluffy flakes fell continuously from early morning to late evening.  We ventured out for a walk to the cathedral (locked) and for lunch at a local cafe but mostly we just holed up in our guesthouse around the cosy wood burning stove.

Holed up in the guesthouse on a snowy day in Mestia

Fortunately by the following morning the sun had appeared and was starting to lift the clouds from the mountains.  We’d arranged a trip to Ushguli, a UNESCO listed village further into the mountains with Vakho, our guesthouse owner’s brother.  Also joining us were a Korean woman and a Japanese man who we’d met in town.  It’s a rough road passable only by 4WD vehicles even in the summer and the 47km (29 miles) takes over 2 hours to drive.  We reached a point where no other vehicles had driven and were cruising along downhill when suddenly a Russian made jeep flew around the corner ahead of us. CRUNCH! There was nowhere for us to go and the front corner and headlight unit of our Mitsubishi was caved in by the impact.

Crash on the snowy road to Ushguli

Luckily no-one was hurt and the engine wasn’t damaged so after a short while we were back on our way though Vakho was understandably upset at the damage which would likely cost him significantly more to fix than the 200GEL that we were paying him for the day’s excursion. There’s no car insurance here and the other vehicle’s owner didn’t seem to be overly concerned about helping out though technically it was his fault as he was driving uphill.

The previous day’s snow made the view from the road to Ushguli even prettier

The community of Ushguli stands at the foot of Mt Shkhara, Georgia’s highest peak, and is made up of five villages, one of which was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1996 as an “exceptional example of mountain scenery with medieval-type villages and tower-houses”. At an altitude of between 2060 and 2200m it also lays claim to being the highest permanently (i.e. year round) inhabited settlement in Europe. It must be a difficult place to live, bitterly cold in the winter (it was bad enough in late March), two hours on a bad road to the nearest small town, and five or more to anything bigger, the people must be hardy and self-sufficient in ways that are difficult for us to imagine.

The villages of Ushguli, in the foreground UNESCO listed Chazhashi, with Chvibiani behind

One Svan culinary specialty is the kubdari, similar to the cheese-filled khachapuri found in the rest of Georgia, but stuffed with seasoned meat.  In Ushguli we got an impromptu cooking lesson from a cafe owner as we watched her make pies for our lunch. I suspect that getting the filling to stay neatly inside the dough is not nearly as easy as she made it look. Once made, the kubdari were cooked on top of and then inside the traditional wood-fired stove which is the heart of every Svan home and kitchen.

Making kubdari in Ushguli

Cafe owner making kubdari, Svan meat pie, in Ushguli

After lunch, Vakho and the cafe owner scrambled the security guard and museum keeper to open the small ethnographic museum up for us. Located in a fat tower in Chazhashi, it houses treasures from Ushguli’s seven churches including gold and silver chalices, icons and crosses as well as jewellery and drinking horns.

Ushguli ethnographic museum

Emerging from the museum we trudged through the snow a little further along the street when we heard loud barking and saw an enormous Caucasian shepherd dog bearing down on us. A woman shouted at him but we beat a hasty retreat all the same. The dogs in the streets of both Ushguli and Mestia are quite intimidating. Not so bad if it’s a cute waddling sausage dog, but others are descended from the mountain dogs bred to protect the sheep from wolves and bears and could do quite a bit of damage if they felt so inclined. Locals told us that they are generally safe as the dogs have learnt that tourists will give them food but I didn’t enjoy having a pack follow us around especially as we had no intention of feeding them.

Our tour group in Ushguli (left to right): Julie, Andrew, Jo, Masato, Hyunja

Feral dogs aside, the mountains were a highlight of the trip for all of us and we vowed to return in the summer for some hiking!

Sighnaghi and Davit Gareja, Georgia

After our day trip to Mtskheta, we ventured a little further afield to the south eastern region of Kakheti which, as well as the following sites, is also famed for its wine. Enroute to our destination of Sighnaghi and straddling the border with Azerbaijan is the 6th century cave monastery of Davit Gareja. Using public transport to get out this way would have doubled the time we needed, so we took the easy option and hired a guide-taxi through our Tbilisi guesthouse.

Davit Gareja

Davit Gareja, Georgia

Looking down into Lavra monastery on the Georgian side of the Davit Gareja complex. The surrounding stripy red hills reminded us of the colourful landscape of Tsagaan Suvraga in Mongolia

After a long 2 hour drive through increasingly bleak and sparsely populated land we arrived at the remote monastery of Davit Gareja, a relative oasis compared to the dry and treeless surroundings. Our guide Giorgi explained that as well as carving out their single-cell shelters, the monks used diagonal channels in the rock faces to collect the little rainwater the area gets.

Davit's Cave, Davit Gareja

Davit’s cave, most likely dug by himself ~1,500 years ago

We were surprised to find much of this part of the complex is in use; the larger caves looked inhabited, some areas were cordoned off requesting visitors to kindly respect monk’s privacy, and there were about a half-dozen monks saying prayers in the small chapel which made it feel almost bustling.

From the upper courtyard we took an energetic trail up through the monastery, past a few more basic caves and a couple of armed Georgian border guards to the top of the ridge before dropping a little way down the other side. I wasn’t entirely sure why we’d left the monastery and were following a path that is essentially the border with Azerbaijan until we’d gone about 100 meters..

Davit Gareja, Georgia

Oh! That’s why! Obviously we knew it was a cave monastery but I had no idea how big it had been and that a lot of the caves had been covered in frescoes painted in the 10th to 13th centuries

Frescoes, frescoes everywhere!

Davit Gareja collage

Exploring the frescoes, including the dinner hall (top right) with a depiction of the last supper

We spent a good hour or so working our way along the remains of the frescoed caves, many of which were just open to the elements. It was amazing how well they’d held up to the weather given a lot of walls had fallen away, but it was bittersweet that some Soviet visitors had scratched their names into the plaster.

Davit Gareja, Georgia - Close up of the Soviet graffiti

Soviet era graffiti – it’s a shame but it’s also a reminder of that period in the monastery’s history

Bodbe Convent

Bodbe Convent, Georgia

The church (right) and bell tower of Bodbe Convent. The grave of St. Nino is inside

From Davit Gareja we drove another 2 hours to reach the outskirts of Sighnaghi. We’d planned to visit Bodbe Convent the following day, but as Giorgi and our fellow tourist Daniel were due to head back to Tbilisi the same day it made sense to include this small but important site in the itinerary. Set amongst tall cypress trees and lush, immaculately kept grounds, the peaceful Bodbe Convent is the final resting place of St. Nino, who converted the King and ultimately Georgia to Christianity.

New church, Bodbe Convent, Georgia

They’d nearly finished a new cathedral-sized church in the grounds of the convent. It looks almost complete from the outside with a lovely mix of texture and materials but it was still a building site inside

Sighnaghi

Sighnaghi, Georgia
Our base for a couple of nights was Signhaghi, a laid-back, quiet, picturesque hill-top town ringed by a turret studded wall. Given that we’d already done our day’s sightseeing activity before we’d arrived, we took a leisurely wander around the town’s walls which afford spectacular views of the wine growing Alazani valley and Caucasus mountains beyond (when there aren’t clouds in the way!).

Sighnaghi walls collage

One of the few staircases onto the walls around Sighnaghi that aren’t in the round turrets

Sighnaghi Museum, Georgia

Just off the main town square is the small but excellent Signhaghi Museum which finishes with a collection of works by the famous pauper painter Pirosmani who was born in Kakheti

After a lazy day of wandering around in the morning and catching up with photos and diary writing in the afternoon we spent the evening indulging in great food and very good, very local wine!

Pheasant's Tears, Sighnaghi, Georgia

We opted for the wine tasting menu to accompany the food at the renowned Pheasant’s Tears which consisted of 6 wines from vineyards across Georgia

Pheasant's Tears, Sighnaghi, Georgia

The food we had in Sighnaghi deserves a mention too – we unconsciously ordered fish and chips with our wine tasting – how does the saying go? you can take the British out of Britain..

The Kakheti region makes up about 60% of Georgia’s vineyards and has been a wine producing area for over 8,000 years. To this day the Georgians take enormous pride in their traditional method of natural fermentation in large clay pots called qvevri sunken into the ground. They also use the whole grape – skin and pips – which turns their white wines a rich sunset amber colour, though they’re still light and refreshing. Delicious!

Mtskheta, Georgia

On our final day in Tbilisi we took the short marshrutka (minibus) trip north to Mtskheta, spiritual home of Georgian Christianity and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  First stop was the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral which dominates the small town’s centre.

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta. We noticed that a lot of Georgian churches have little model churches on their roof ridges and this one is no exception

Svetitskhoveli means ‘Life-Giving Column’, a reference to the legend surrounding the building of the first cathedral on this site in the 4th century. Long before, the robe from Christ’s crucifixion was brought to Mtskheta by a local Jew and ended up buried nearby although the site had been forgotten by the time King Mirian, Georgia’s first Christian king, had been converted and decided to build a cathedral here.  When they tried to raise the cathedral’s central pillar it could not be lifted from the ground, but after much praying by St Nino (more about her presently) the pillar moved of its own accord to stand over the spot where Christ’s robe was buried.

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral Interior

There are some beautiful frescoes inside the cathedral

We loved the cathedral’s decoration, with the Christ fresco in the apse reminding us of churches we’d seen in Sicily, notably Cefalù and Monreale, and the icons with hanging lamps in front. The gravestones in the floor give hints as to the history of the area and the different rulers who have had influence here at various times, we spotted several Cyrillic (Russian) and Arabic, as well as ancient and modern Georgian scripts. In one of the side aisles there’s a copy of the Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem erected to mark Svetitskhoveli as the second most holy place in the world (after the original chapel) and today visited by many Georgians who are not able to travel to Jerusalem.

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (clockwise from top left): Jo and I had to don headscarves and apron-like ‘skirts’ before we could enter (Andrew just had to take off his hat); the original ‘Life-Giving Column’ was on the site of this monument; as you might expect St George is a common subject for icons all around Georgia

After visiting the cathedral we were starting to get hungry. The Lonely Planet told us that lobio, casseroled kidney beans with herbs and spices, are a specialty in Mtskheta so that was what we sought out. They’re served in individual clay pots and were even tastier than we expected. With some bread and salad they made for a nutritious and cheap lunch!

Lobio

Lobio for lunch in a Mtskheta cafe

After lunch we made our way to the Jvari Church, sitting on a ridge over the town.  As the crow flies it’s not far, but to get there by road it’s 11km each way and, as it’s not served by public transport, most visitors take a taxi.  But that’s not our style, it was a glorious day and a bit of exercise would do us good, so we checked with the helpful lady in the Tourist Information Office who informed us that it was possible to walk there in about an hour.  The only hitch was crossing the dual carriageway that separates the town from the hill where the church is.  Fortunately the road wasn’t too busy, the visibility was good and there was a nice high central reservation to wait on in the middle, still it wasn’t the nicest road crossing we’ve ever done – though less stressful than navigating the hundreds of teeming scooters in Vietnam!

View of Mtskheta from Jvari church

From the Jvari church there’s a spectacular view of Mtskheta and the confluence of the Aragvi (blue) and Mtkvari (grey) rivers

The Jvari Church itself is small and simply constructed but very holy for Georgians as it stands on the site where King Mirian erected a wooden cross soon after his conversion by St Nino in around 327AD. St Nino was a missionary from a Greek-speaking Roman family. Reputedly related to St George, she travelled to Georgia from Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) and became one of the most important saints in the Georgian Orthodox church. Her grapevine cross is a symbol of Georgian Christianity, and Nino is a very popular girls name too – it sometimes seemed like every other local woman we met was called Nino!

Jvari church

The small and symmetrical Jvari church

It was extremely windy on the ridge outside the church though the view was worth being blown about for. The inside is a big contrast to the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, with bare stone walls rather than frescoes, the small circular space is dominated by a large wooden cross, and there’s a rather sombre atmosphere with a black-clad old lady shushing anyone who speaks too loudly.

Jvari church

Jvari church (clockwise from top): the church stands on a ridge across the river from Mtskheta town; a representation of the cross of St Nino; inside the church is dominated by a large wooden cross

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.

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