Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

Lush greenery of the Armenian countryside, with Mt. Ararat on the horizon

There was no escaping the imposing presence of Mt. Ararat as I traveled around Armenia. The mountain was always visible, whether driving through the lush green countryside or walking around the capital city of Yerevan. My first sight of Mt Ararat came at dawn, as my train from Tbilisi, Georgia was nearing Yeravan. Bleary-eyed from an uncomfortable night of clickety-clack wheels on rails, I made my way to the reeking toilet. The wide-open window provided scant relief from the overwhelming smell of stale urine, but the view took my breath away. Beyond the flat farmlands, Greater Mt Ararat and Little Mt Ararat stood as twin sentinels on the horizon. Read More

From the moment I set foot in Baku, I knew there was something very different about Azerbaijan’s capital city. Mirror-clad skyscrapers and modern shopping centers stood juxtaposed against the 700-year old stone walls of the Old City. Elegantly dressed women in high heels negotiated crazy patchwork stone streets. Delicious cooking smells mingled with an unpleasant smell that I couldn’t quite identify. This contrast of ancient and modern, coupled with the unexpected friendliness of Azeris and that strange odor, would become my enduring impressions of Baku.

I certainly wasn't expecting to see these glitzy modern skyscrapers on Neftchilar Prospekti Street in Baku, Azerbaijan

I certainly wasn’t expecting to see these glitzy modern skyscrapers on Neftchilar Prospekti Street in Baku, Azerbaijan

The Parallel Hotel, which had opened just two months earlier, was my next surprise. My room was huge, with an enormous King-size bed, and the staff was incredibly attentive. While having lunch at their in-house restaurant, the hotel manager, restaurant manager, waitress, and even the chef came out to talk to me. We discussed the history of Azerbaijan, the Russian occupation in 1918, religion, the current political situation – even the language and alphabet. By the time I’d finished eating, my itinerary for the following day was all arranged. For the very reasonable price of $70, the hotel had arranged a private tour with a driver and guide, to the most important sites in and around Baku.

We set out early the next morning. The city soon gave way to a bizarre barren landscape dotted with mud volcanoes. These mounds, which can rise more than 2,000 feet high, are formed when hot water deep below the Earth’s surface mixes with mud and methane gas. Subterranean pressure forces the resultant mud slurry up to the surface, where it “erupts” like a lava volcano. Read More

Baku, Azerbaijan - The Smell of MoneyBaku, Azerbaijan - The Smell of MoneyBaku, Azerbaijan - The Smell of MoneyBaku, Azerbaijan - The Smell of Money

Mtskheta, the original capital of Georgia, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and the place where the country first adopted Christianity in 334. Today, not only is it the headquarters of the Georgian Orthodox and Apostolic Church, it is home to Jvari Monastery and Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, two important religious sites included in the UNESCO listed Historical Monuments of Mtskheta. Those of you who have read my review of Tbilisi, Georgia, will already know that I was less than enthusiastic about a city that is the darling of many travel writers. Fortunately, visiting Mtskheta allowed me to see a different and more redeeming side of Georgia.

View from Jvari Monastery, looking down on the village of Mtskheta Georgia

View from Jvari Monastery, looking down on the village of Mtskheta Georgia

My tour began at the Jvari Monastery (Monastery of the Holy Cross), which stands atop a rocky hill, overlooking the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers and the town of Mtskheta. In 4th century, Mother Mary appeared to Saint Nino, a Cappadocian female missionary, and instructed her to spread Orthodox Christianity among the pagan-worshiping population of Georgia. St. Nino succeeded in converting the Georgian queen Nana, but King Mirian III stubbornly clung to his pagan beliefs. According to legend, the King was blinded during a hunting trip, when darkness suddenly fell upon the land. The light, and his sight, were restored only after he prayed to “Nino’s God.” King Mirian converted soon thereafter and ordered Christianity to be the State religion. Read More

The Historical UNESCO Monuments of Mtskheta, GeorgiaThe Historical UNESCO Monuments of Mtskheta, GeorgiaThe Historical UNESCO Monuments of Mtskheta, Georgia

I just finished watching day three of the Democratic National Convention. One sentence in Nancy Pelosi’s speech caught my attention. Speaking about women, she said, “Our diversity is our strength. Our unity is our power. This month, as America marks the centennial of women, finally, women winning the right to vote, we do so with 105 women in the House…To win the vote, women marched and fought, never gave in. We stand on their shoulders, charged with carrying forward the unfinished work of our nation, advanced by heroes, from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall.”

Historic brick buildings in the center of Seneca Falls NY

Historic brick buildings in the town center at Seneca Falls NY

I wondered how many people understood her reference to Seneca Falls. I did. Nine years ago I was invited to visit the beautiful Adirondacks Park in upstate New York. After spending a couple of weeks in the mountains, I decided to drive west to Niagara Falls, which I hadn’t seen since I was a young girl. By pure coincidence, my first stop was in Syracuse, where I happened upon the Erie Canal Museum. Several hours later, I was hooked on the story of the building of the Erie Canal and its importance to the westward expansion of the United States. My journey across New York State suddenly took on a theme. For the next couple of weeks I followed the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, stopping at remaining stretches of the canal in lovely small towns like Camillus, Geneva, Lockport and Seneca Falls NY. Read More

Homage to Seneca Falls, NY - Birthplace of Women’s SuffrageHomage to Seneca Falls, NY - Birthplace of Women’s Suffrage

For the past few years, my fellow travel writers have been waxing poetic about Tbilisi, the capital of the of country of Georgia. This tiny nation, hampered with a name that is often confused with the State of Georgia in the U.S., was suddenly being added to everyone’s wish list. For decades, Georgia was virtually unknown in travel circles. Most didn’t even realize that the Caucasus, as the region is known, is part of Europe. Tucked between the Greater Caucasus Mountains in the north, the Lesser Caucasus Mountains to the south, the Black Sea to the west, and the Caspian Sea to the east, the three Caucasus countries of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan form the border between Europe and Asia.

Those who had visited Georgia raved about the variety of things to do in Tbilisi. The city’s gorgeous churches, historic wooden houses with ornamental carved facades and balconies, quirky Old Town, glittering glass and steel Peace Bridge, sidewalk cafes, and the region’s famous wines were all touted as top attractions. And if that wasn’t enough, I was repeatedly reminded that Americans get a year visa upon arrival, no questions asked. I was sold. I booked my ticket and set off to explore the region.

Beautiful 19th century mansions and palaces along Davit Aghmashenebeli Avenue in Tbilisi, Georgia

Beautiful 19th century mansions and palaces along Davit Aghmashenebeli Avenue in Tbilisi, Georgia

On my first day I needed to wind down from my overnight train from Baku, Azerbaijan. I dumped my luggage and went for a leisurely walk in the Marjanishvili neighborhood, with its beautiful 19th century mansions. I struck gold that first day when I wandered into Barbarestan Restaurant, reputed to be the top eatery in Tbilisi. I was treated to a delicious meal based on ancient Georgian cuisine and waddled back across the street to my hotel, filled with excitement about my next few days. Read More

Tbilisi, Georgia - I Was UnimpressedTbilisi, Georgia - I Was UnimpressedTbilisi, Georgia - I Was Unimpressed

It happens to me a lot. I arrive in a new place with no plans and little knowledge of the country. I do this purposely. I want to see every country I visit with no expectations. I prefer to be surprised. Somehow, the universe always seems to lead me to the places I need to experience, and Tbilisi,
Georgia, was no different.

Beautifully set table at Restaurant Barbarestan

Beautifully set table at Restaurant Barbarestan

I arrived in the capital city after an 11-hour night train from Baku, Azerbaijan. After checking into my hotel, I got local currency from an ATM, then focused on my most immediate need – food. There are numerous restaurants in Tbilisi for Georgian cuisine, but I was tired and didn’t want to go far. Fortunately, I spied a few tables on the sidewalk just a block away from my hotel. It was Restaurant Barbarestan, one of the most popular places in town that offers a pure Georgian menu. I stepped down into the sunken restaurant timidly, expecting to find only meat items on the menu. To my surprise, I was assured the selections included several vegetarian and vegan items. Read More

Restaurant Barbarestan - a Delicious Discovery in Tbilisi, GeorgiaRestaurant Barbarestan - a Delicious Discovery in Tbilisi, Georgia