Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

They say timing is everything. Certainly, timing was my main consideration when visiting Armenia. Truthfully, the three countries that make up the Caucasus region in far eastern Europe were on my radar for one reason. I’d read several stories by travel writers who were totally smitten by the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, but otherwise I knew absolutely nothing about the region. I went to Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia simply because they were the only three countries in Europe I hadn’t yet visited.

I soon learned that the logistics of visiting the Caucasus would require more planning than normal. My preference was to begin my travels in Azerbaijan, moving west to Armenia, and finally to Georgia, where I could catch an onward flight to Budapest. But due to the ongoing conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, it is not possible to cross the border between those two countries. I considered skipping Armenia completely, but my desire to visit every country in Europe won out. I flew into Azerbaijan, took the train to Georgia, and then backtracked to Armenia on another train. Thank goodness I did. Visiting Armenia was the unexpected highlight of my Caucasus trip.

isiting Armenia - Marriott Hotel on Republic Square in Yerevan is a fine example of the pink tuff construction that gives Yerevan its nickname, "The Pink City"

Marriott Hotel on Republic Square in Yerevan is a fine example of the pink tuff construction that gives Yerevan its nickname, “The Pink City”

Just steps from my hotel in the capital city of Yerevan I discovered the oval-shaped Republic Square. The stately curved neoclassical buildings surrounding its central roundabout included the National History Museum, the Post Office, and the Marriott Hotel. Pink colored volcanic tuff used in their construction, as well as many other buildings of note in the city, has earned Yerevan the nickname “The Pink City.” Yerevan is the only major city in the world built out of this stone. Read More

Visiting Armenia, An Unexpectedly Delightful ExperienceVisiting Armenia, An Unexpectedly Delightful Experience

Khor Virap Monastery in Armenia, against a backdrop of Turkey's Mount Ararat

Khor Virap. The name refers to the famous monastery in Armenia that is the number one pilgrimage site in the country. But the name has a deeper, hidden meaning. The church stands on a low hillock, built over a deep vault carved out of solid rock. Saint Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned within this pit for 13 years, surviving on food that local women smuggled in to him. The name Khor Virap is a reference to that grisly prison. It comes from the Armenian “virap nerk’in,” literally meaning “deep dungeon.”

It seemed incongruous to me that this most holy site would be named after a place of suffering, rather than for the Saint who was responsible for Armenia being declared the world’s first Christian country. But its name is not the only thing about Khor Virap that I found jarring. The hillock upon which it perches Read More

Khor Virap Monastery in Armenia, Dwarfed by Mount Ararat

Pilgrim lights a candle in St. Astvatsatsin Chapel at Khor Virap Sanctuary in Armenia

In the dim light of Saint Astvatsatsin chapel at Khor Virap Monastery in Armenia, I carefully picked my way over the uneven stone floor. I was concentrating so hard on where to put my feet that I didn’t look up until I reached the center of the candlelit cavern. Having visited pilgrimage sites all over the world, I wasn’t surprised to find someone lighting a candle. What astonished me was the man doing it, specifically his wide mustache. I could barely look away. He was just one of thousands of people who make their way to this famous pilgrimage site each year.

At the end of the second century, King Tiridates III of Armenia imprisoned Gregory the Illuminator in a cave on this site. Gregory languished in the small stone hole for 14 years, until the king fell ill and asked for Gregory’s help. He miraculously Read More

Pilgrim Lights a Candle at Khor Virap Monastery in Armenia

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