Posted in English, Europe, Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul – Days 4&5

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

07 February 2019

Today is the penultimate day of our short stay in Istanbul. Of course, there is a lot that we didn’t get to see – mainly because of the weather, rather than lack of time. For example, had the weather been good we could have headed to the Prince’s Islands or the Rumeli Fortress. Instead, we had to dedicate the day to shopping, which is actually also interesting and also a source of impressions. Besides, it turned out to be a great bargain: first, the lira is rather cheap at the moment and second, we were lucky to be here during big winter sales.

A drive to the Istinye Park shopping mall, located quite far north, near the Technical University, is also an introduction to previously unexplored parts of Istanbul. I guess, this is the perfect time to share my general impressions of the city, taking, of course, into account the fact that the trees are all bare now and will certainly add a lot more colour to the landscapes in the spring. So, the city is not homogeneous, some parts of it look a bit shabby, although I would say that overall, buildings in one area tend to follow the same style – it is unlikely to see a tall new building among old five-storey houses, like it is often the case back home.

The shopping centre is a huge building, topped with a dome, which, of course, gives it a distinct Middle-Eastern look.

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Shopping-wise, we were interested specifically in Turkish brands. Generally, shopping in Istanbul is very pleasant, primarily because of the high quality of service. The shop assistant immediately greets you but does not pounce on you or tread on your heels, as, again, they annoyingly like to do back home. And when you address them, they show a maximum of friendliness, patience and willingness to help you make a purchase that you are really going to like.

The same, by the way, applies to waiters in restaurant: the service is very quick and they are really friendly (which doesn’t look fake and forced).

Funnily, the only time when we saw neither of these qualities was the day before yesterday, when we had lunch at our hotel’s bistro. We waited for our most basic sandwiches for so long that we could vividly imagine the waiter running into the kitchen in a panic and shouting: “They ordered sandwiches! Be quick, run to buy chicken and meat!”

But overall, we really liked the local people. Not once did we even observe any quarrel, rudeness or swearing. People are polite and friendly to each other. The degree of friendliness towards us increased even more when they learned that we were from Azerbaijan. And their attitude towards animals, which I have already mentioned, simply wins one’s heart and mind!

On this day, dedicated to shopping, we got a chance to visit not only a large modern mall, but also the little shops of the Old City. The impressions are completely different, of course. Shops are strictly specialized – bags only or hats only – but on the whole, there is some feeling of chaos. Yet, this chaos has a certain charm to it.

We finished the day with dinner at the same restaurant near our hotel, which we liked so much yesterday.

08 February 2019

Today, on the day of our departure, we enjoyed a very pleasant walk along the rainy Istiklal Caddesi after breakfast.

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We decided to have lunch at the airport, and we headed there rather early – as it turned out, it was a good idea. The queues at the Istanbul airport begin not at the check-in counter, but from the entrance, where a full security check is taking place. Actually, the measure is quite understandable, remembering the terrorist attack at this airport three years ago.

Interestingly, everywhere around the airport we could spot bald men, with bruises on their seemingly burned heads. We’d come across such men previously as well, in the city. We wondered what that could be – some kind of sect? Later it turned out that everything was much more trivial and that Istanbul is a Mecca of hair transplantation, with lots of clinics and prices more affordable than in other countries.

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Posted in English, Europe, Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul – Day 3

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

06 February 2019

Today has been a particularly busy day, and the weather played up very well: the forecast that promised non-stop rain turned out wrong, and it actually only rained in the morning while we were still on the bus on our way to the tour around the main sights of Istanbul’s Old City.

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Surprisingly, although we had reserved yesterday’s and today’s tours on different websites, we were greeted by the same guide as yesterday, Muzaffer, in our English-speaking group. Apart from us there was also the same Indian couple as yesterday and an Irish family. Looking ahead, I will say that after lunch we were joined by another couple from Hong Kong and some British Indians.

The day started getting a spiritual direction right from the start – from the Hacı Beşir Ağa Mosque. It is small, not particularly remarkable, but it is where we were explained how to behave in a mosque (believe it or not, I hadn’t been to one before!): there is an obligatory requirement to take shoes off and, for women, to cover their head with a scarf. The mosque itself was closed, and we could only look at its interior from the upper floor for women. What was interesting to see was a special chamber, where a believer would spend the night before having to make an important decision, praying for Allah to send them a clue in a dream.

Next followed one of Istanbul’s main features – which became especially famous after the Magnificent Century TV series – the Topkapi Palace. It is constructed on the first of the seven hills of Istanbul and dominates the surrounding area. As we entered the very first room – if I remember correctly, it was the Imperial Council, or Dîvân-ı Hümâyûn – we immediately understood why the Dolmabahce Palace, despite all its pomp and splendour, didn’t cause a storm of delight. The domes, the paintings and the décor of Topkapi are much stricter, more harmonious and, one might say, more majestic. What I see here is spirituality vs. Dolmabahce’s depersonalised grandeur. And all this despite the fact that this palace’s harem was not included in our tour.

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There are four gardens in the palace complex – the first two are external, while the third and fourth are internal, and the latter was only reserved for the closest members of the sultan’s household. Photography is allowed in many parts of the palace, but not in rooms with expositions – which is a shame, given that they contain the most interesting things!

First of all, there is a magnificent collection of clocks and watches – both from Turkey and Western Europe, from small pocket watches to tall grandfather clocks. Next, there is an extensive collection of weapons – mostly local Ottoman ones (such as firearms, bows, swords, yatagans, chain armours, shields, helmets, including those for horses), but also trophy and gifted weapons. For us it was particularly interesting to see Safavid weapons among the last (or maybe the penultimate!): who knows, it may have been my ancestors who used it! At the same time, we couldn’t help having a strange feeling, that today we are walking around this exposition and looking with great interest at something that once presented a mortal danger and was created to kill people.

The next exposition consists of huge kitchen premises, which were used for preparing food for six thousand people. And nowadays they contain a collection of ceremonial tableware and kitchen utensils. We found the latter more interesting, since they are functional, as for tableware — well, it’s just tableware!

We were really impressed with the collection of religious relics – at one point the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire extended over Mecca and Medina, making it inherit the status of the caliphate, as well as Jerusalem. Not surprisingly, it was in its capital that a collection of items belonging to the prophet Muhammad (weapons, personal belongings, even beard hair and teeth) and his closest entourage, as well as other prophets — for example, the staff of Moses and the sword of David — was collected.

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We also really liked the library of Sultan Ahmed III, in the midst of which there is the sultan himself (well, obviously a figure!)

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The last exposition we got to see contained the portraits of all the sultans, but this one was probably the least interesting. From the palace, where we spent about two hours, we went straight to lunch, which was very well organized. In general, the impression is that restaurants in Istanbul are often placed on the top floor of a hotel to provide a beautiful view. So there we sat, eating delicious mezes and kofte, drinking tea and admiring the views of Istanbul and the seagulls proudly sitting on the roofs.

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After lunch, now in a bigger group, we headed to Hagia Sophia. This place is truly unique, bringing together values that are almost incompatible by modern standards. Outside, it is very clearly visible that the minarets are attached to a Christian church. However, the building itself does not look particularly outstanding. Looking ahead, I will say that the Blue Mosque, located directly opposite, is much more beautiful on the outside.

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However, the interior of Hagia Sophia is stunning. Despite crowds of tourists – as always, mostly Chinese – you get a feeling of extraordinary holiness and admiration for the fact that the images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, the first Roman emperors and the symbols of Islam peacefully coexist in this place.

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In fact, this has not always been the case. At first, Sultan Mehmed II, who conquered Constantinople, simply ordered the main Christian cathedral to be turned into a mosque, covering the Christian images with plaster. They weren’t cleared until 1935, when by a decree signed by Ataturk, Hagia Sophia became a museum.

The happy free cats of Istanbul feel great here as well, causing a smile, which somewhat dilutes the sublime feelings evoked by the place.

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The Blue Mosque, aka the Sultanahmet Mosque, as already mentioned, is very beautiful outside. It has as many as six minarets (usually, there are one, two or four). But unfortunately, there was almost nothing to look at inside – there is renovation going on, so, for instance, the dome is completely covered. Since, unlike Hagia Sophia, this is a functioning mosque, there are a separate entrance and exit for tourists, who therefore have to carry their shoes with them in specially provided plastic bags.

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To finish with the mosque topic, I will say that there are more than two thousand of them in Istanbul. This seems like a huge number, but is actually normal for 20 million people.

We had thought that the Hippodrome – our next destination – was a visit to some ancient sports facilities or its remnants. It turned out to be even more than just remnants, located right here, at the Sultanahmet Square: there is only one Egyptian obelisk and two Greek columns, one of which is made of weapons and armour of the defeated Persians.

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And finally, the last destination of our tour is the Grand Bazaar, or Kapalı Çarşı. The visit was preceded by a meeting with experts of Turkish carpet weaving, which we had in the Istanbul Handicraft Centre not far from the Bazaar. They treated us to apple tea, piled up a bunch of carpets in front of us and explained the difference between the local and, say, Persian technique(double knots instead of single ones). Of course, this was done with an eye to enticing us to purchase carpets, but no one in our group was willing to. At least us, the Azerbaijanis, could hardly be tempted by carpets.

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We had 40 minutes to explore the Bazaar itself, but in fact that was more than enough. Frankly speaking, yesterday’s Spice Bazaar impressed us a lot more, because Kapalı Çarşı, although of course much bigger, seemed less beautiful and more chaotic. We walked through one of the galleries back and forth and found that this “drop” was enough to appreciate the entire “sea” of the Grand Bazaar.

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Moreover, even though the day had been very interesting, it had also been exhausting, so our bus, which accurately dropped us off at our hotel, seemed to be the most tempting place.

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We were so tired that for dinner we found a restaurant literally around the corner from our hotel, and made a right choice: it was very nice and cozy with delicious food and great service.

Posted in English, Europe, Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul – Day 2

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

04 February 2019

Today’s weather clearly demonstrated that February is February, and yesterday was just a gift to mark our arrival. Today was pretty windy, with almost no sun, and, according to the forecast, this is not going to be the worst day of our stay.

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We had a Bosphorus cruise planned for today, and at 8am we were picked up by a minibus. Apparently in order to prepare us for a boat ride, the minibus hurled us from side to side, rushing down narrow streets, past countless (for some reason!) shops selling lighting fixtures.

There were six of us in the group – a couple from Southeast Asia, two Indians, and us – the Azerbaijanis. The first item on our agenda was Misir Carsisi – or Spice Bazaar, aka Egyptian Bazaar, with beautiful gilded passages, tons and tons of spices, nuts, Turkish delights, gold and silver! We entered this kingdom of Middle-Eastern goods with a firm intention to just look around. But resourceful sellers immediately involved us in a “round dance” of offers, treats, promises of discounts, and we changed our determination to not but anything – anyway, we didn’t end up making any completely impulsive purchases: we bought sweets, spices, a cezve and silver jewelry. What contributed most to our purchases was, first of all, our understanding of Turkish (which allowed the sellers to elaborate extensively on the quality of their goods) and secondly, the fact that we accidentally came across our fellow countrywoman at one of the shops – she seemed to be either the administrator or the owner.

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Having left all our purchases in the minibus, with the kind consent of our guide, we transferred to the cruise boat, where there were a couple of other tourist groups apart from ours, but overall the boat was far from being full – apparently, it’s a low season now.

Yesterday the concierge at our hotel was trying to convince us to sign up for another cruise in the afternoon, scaring us with the usual morning fog, which would prevent us from seeing much. Fortunately, that turned out not to be the case. I mean, some fog was present indeed, but firstly, it didn’t really bother us, and besides, it didn’t dissipate in the afternoon either.

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The cruise starts at the Kabatas ferry port, and first goes along the European part of the city, past such attractions as the Dolmabahce Palace, the Rumeli Fortress and the Ciragan Palace, converted into a Kempinski hotel – the most expensive one in Istanbul. We made nice photos, but cannot really say that our delight went through the roof. By the way, we were accompanied by seagulls during the whole of our journey, however, compared to those at Galata Tower yesterday, these ones seemed smaller.

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What looked more interesting was the Asian part, which we sailed along when the ship turned around from the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge. And here, even more than the actual sights of interest, including the Anadolu fortress, the Beylerbeyi Palace, the Kucuksu pavilion, we enjoyed the coastline, strewn with variegated mansions. Their unique location with direct Bosphorus views makes them the most expensive real estate in Turkey, with prices reaching up to hundreds of millions of dollars.

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This morning we still had no exact plans for the afternoon: we had a thought to dedicate the day entirely to water travel and visit the Princes’ Islands. It was the weather that finally discouraged us. The Princes’ Islands are mostly good for walking around – there isn’t even any transport there, besides horse carts. Therefore, we changed our minds in favour of the Dolmabahce Palace, and we took an Uber there, which didn’t go perfectly well. He dropped us off near some beautiful (but locked!) palace gates and rushed off into the sunset. The street looked deserted, in particular, we didn’t see any crowds of tourists storming the palace.

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To our luck, literally the only passer-by, whom we naturally addressed, knew exactly where the palace entrance was (it turned out that we had just been dropped off in the wrong place) and kindly showed us the way. By the way, she herself turned out not to be local, but an Afghan living in the USA and working here just temporarily.

The location of the palace is simply amazing – the sultans did know a thing or two about choosing the perfect place. The carved fences and the garden gates overlook the Bosphorus. One can imagine the pleasure of walking in this garden!

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Dolmabahce is not the old residence of the sultans (which we aren’t going to see till tomorrow), but a 19th-century building, reflecting all of the contemporary European trends, which is especially noticeable in the furniture. Unfortunately, photography is prohibited inside the palace, and although not all visitors were quite law-abiding, we decided to comply.

There are two types of tickets: including and excluding a visit to the harem. Of course, the first type is preferable: in fact, the harem is much more interesting and luxurious than the rest of the palace, and better reflects the actual life of the sultan’s family. Along standard apartments of sultan’s wives, consisting of a bedroom, a living room and a bathroom (with a squat toilet, as everywhere in the palace!), there are also the luxurious and extensive apartments of Valide Sultan, the reigning sultan’s mother. The latter include a prayer room, a large reception room, a private room, and a spacious bedroom. Even the sultan’s own apartments in the harem are superior in luxury and decoration to his apartments in the official part of the palace.

The latter, of course, has beautifully furnished rooms, but the one that can be considered truly exclusive is the main hall with an incredibly painted domed ceiling. There are also two display rooms: the first one contains tableware and kitchenware, and the second one has medals, weapons, household and leisure items.

It’s interesting to note that after the fall of the monarchy, Atatürk chose Dolmabahce as his residence, and this is where he died – in one of the rooms (a very simple and modest one) of the former harem. This room is also open to visitors, and the bed in it is covered with a blanket representing the Turkish flag.

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We stayed in Dolmabahce almost until its closing time. From here we were supposed to go for dinner, to a fish restaurant, booked in advance, in the Cihangir area. And this suddenly turned into a whole adventure. We hadn’t ordered a taxi in advance, and tried to hail one in the street, but the cars were going in the opposite direction and the taxi driver refused to pick us. Google showed that the restaurant was relatively close, literally a 22-minute walk.

What Google didn’t show, however, is that we would have to climb countless stairs a good deal of the way. Possibly, I would even say most certainly, there should exist a longer way without stairs – I mean, cars do get there somehow! – but we, naively and recklessly, not realising how much we would have to climb, went up the stairs. It was a breathtaking experiment! The stairs were quite steep and chipped, some parts of the way had no handrails, occasionally a stair was interrupted by a sewer manhole. Afraid to look back and feel dizzy, we climbed up and up, like cats, who can climb only up trees, out of fear. Speaking of cats, their appearance was the pinnacle of the whole climb. Five of them simultaneously ditched their food bowls (apparently, kindly provided by residents of the houses located along the stairs) and rushed at our feet. They were meowing loudly and rubbing against us, a couple of cats even smacked each other, fighting for the right to get in our way, and then followed us for a long time. I struggle to imagine what that was. In that situation, they totally seemed like messengers from hell, but perhaps the poor animals were just trying to welcome us and cheer us up. They only left us at the very last part of the staircase. Alas, there are no photos of the cats – it was not the right moment to take pictures, you know.

After we successfully overcame this “hurdle”, we still had to meander a bit more more around the streets going up and down, but this felt more tolerable. We entered the restaurant totally exhausted. But then we were rewarded with a magnificent view of the city from the 8th floor, delicious fish, and excellent service.

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Posted in English, Europe, Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul – Day 1

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

03 February 2019

Surprising, but fact – I am a person who has seen quite a few countries, including far ones, but has never been to the neighbouring Turkey. Yet, every self-respecting Azerbaijani, who has the opportunity to travel abroad, has definitely been there. So I finally decided to fill this unforgivable gap, and here we are, flying to Istanbul!

The flight begins with mixed feelings: there is no online check-in, which is bad, but we end up without a seat neighbour, which is good; our seats are at the very rear of the aircraft, which is bad, but breakfast starts being served from the tail of the cabin, which is good. First we are flying over mountains – underneath us there is the majestic Caucasus, with its dazzling snowy peaks! – and then mostly over the Black Sea.

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The Istanbul Ataturk Airport is definitely worth a mention – the speed and the quality, which we observed while going through all the necessary stages of arrival, really impressed us. Such a contrast with, say, Heathrow, where you hang around for a good hour in an extremely slow queue at the passport control. The queue here isn’t any shorter, if not longer, but it’s moving speedily and cheerfully all the time.

At first glance, Istanbul didn’t strike us with anything extraordinary. We are going in a taxi, on our right side we see the Marmara Sea, and on our left side there are some buildings, not very expressive ones.

Our hotel is located in the Pera district in the European part of the city, and is literally a stone’s throw away from the central pedestrian street Istiklal Caddesi. In general, we were advised – and we also advise this in our turn – to choose a hotel in this particular part of the city, and definitely not in the Old Town, where most of the tourist attractions are. In fact the Old Town area is only lively during the daytime, while Istiklal Avenue and its surroundings provide the tourist with everything they need – food, drink, shopping, entertainment – at all times of the day and night. View from our hotel window:

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So Istiklal Avenue is where we start exploring Istanbul today. Our hotel’s location is such that if you walk a kilometre to the left, you will get to Taksim, and if you walk one (plus a bit more) to the right, you will reach the Galata Tower.

We first turned left. A historic tram line passes through Istiklal Caddesi, and this is the street’s only transport, apart from cleaning vehicles and police cars, which, by the way, also try to drive along the tramway track so as not to disturb pedestrians very much. For people from Baku, the best description of Istiklal Avenue is that it’s Istanbul’s “Torgovaya”, only a very long one.

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We are surprisingly lucky with the weather today: despite it being February, it is so warm during the daytime that we have to take off our outerwear every now and then. When we sit down on a bench on Taksim Square, the sun is literally scorching. The square itself does not seem very cozy. We sat there for a bit and looked at a mosque under construction, at the “Republic” monument with sculptures of Ataturk and other marshals, including the Soviet marshal Voroshilov, and then turned back to Istiklal Caddesi, more interested in the tram, with roller skater boys clinging to it, than in the square itself.

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Walking Istiklal Street is very pleasant. We are eating wonderful roasted chestnuts, which are sold at every corner, and dondurma – the special stretchy Turkish ice cream, which the seller scoops onto cones, using a long-handled paddle, and turning the whole thing into a real show.

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A separate paragraph should be devoted to the cats of Istanbul. There are lots of them, and this is the only place I have seen where cats are as beautiful as in Baku, but here they are loved and cherished much more. Almost every store or restaurant has food and drink bowls for cats, and often even a special little cat house. However, the most audacious cats prefer to settle in a chair right inside. There are quite ordinary-looking cats, and there are also simply outstanding examples of fluffiness and fatness. Dogs can also be found, though less often; all of them are microchipped and seemingly contented.

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What’s also interesting on Istiklal Caddesi is that there are quite a few Christian churches. We walked into one – the Basilica of St. Anthony of Padua, and, as it seemed to me, there were quite a few Turks praying in it, although I could be wrong.

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We reached the Galata Tower quite unexpectedly – for some reason I had the impression that it was in the opposite direction, and then suddenly we saw a signpost. It was about 5pm, and at first we decided to wait for the evening to take pictures of the tower in the evening light, and then thought that instead of idly waiting around we might as well go up to the observation deck (previously we were planning to do it tomorrow). The queue (maybe it’s a property of all the queues in Istanbul!), despite its impressive length, was moving rather quickly. We wondered if there was a lift inside the tower, or if we would have to climb a spiral staircase. There was a lift, yet we still had to climb the last two floors.

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I must say that a moderate wait in the queue and a dizzy climb up the eerie stairs were totally worth it. The view of Istanbul from all sides is magnificent! A special feature are the large seagulls, which land on stone balls from time to time, right at arm’s length, and observe the city, looking very smart and important. Obviously, just like the tourists here, they are admiring the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn Bay, the famous mosques in the Old City. The only slightly annoying bit is that there are too many people on such a narrow rim of the tower, especially when not everyone is following the instructions to move only clockwise, which leads to chaotic cramming.

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The tower also offers another entertainment – a simulation of a helicopter flight, which we didn’t find tempting though. However, we were taken a ton of pictures of, wearing historical costumes of harem dwellers. The poster advertising this attraction beckons you with a price of 30 liras (about 6 USD) per photo, but the ingenious photographer takes so many beautiful photos, with a variety of props, that you almost unwittingly end up forking out a lot more. But we still liked it!

To make sure we do get to see the Galata Tower in the evening light, we decided to have dinner in a restaurant directly opposite it. The weather and the heaters allowed us to sit comfortably outside (in February!) As for the restaurant, what can I say? Delicious kebabs, excellent service.

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Posted in Europe, Georgia

Georgia – Day 2

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

27 December 2014

We dedicated our second day to a tour of Tbilisi. First of all, we were taken to the Turtle lake which is located in the posh Vake district. The lake is called like that for a very obvious reason – there are small turtles on its shores. The lake was coated with a thin layer of ice, and the park impressed us with its clean pine air and the sources thereof.

Yesterday we thought that Tbilisi was pretty small, but when we were taken to see it from one of the highest points today, so that not only the old part, but also the new districts were visible, it turned out that the sizes are much larger and the city, extended in length, lies in the cleft between the mountains. In short, the size of the city could be seen well, but the details could not really be made out – it was very foggy. On the way to this lookout point we saw a very original building of the 112 rescue service in the form of a flying saucer.

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One of the planned visits was the Pantheon – the burial place of famous Georgian figures of culture, science and politics – situated on the slopes of Mount Mtatsminda. More precisely, it was our guide who told us about the Pantheon, as we only knew about the graves of Griboyedov and his wife, Nina Chavchavadze. It turns out that these very graves initiated the Pantheon. We came as close as we could by car, and then had to walk, making pretty steep climbs. The guide was encouraging us by showing the place of destination. From this high point, we looked at Tbilisi again, from a different perspective now, and suddenly it turned out that the grave of Griboyedov was just behind us. The grave had a very touching monument to a weeping woman clinging to a cross, and a no less touching famous inscription: “Your spirit and achievements will be remembered forever. Why still does my love outlive you?” With regard to the Pantheon itself, I found all the graves interesting, even though I had only known the names of Stalin’s mother, Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Nodar Dumbadze.

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After such a spiritual visit we moved on to a purely prosaic activity – food consumption, for the purpose of which we were taken to the Agmashenebeli avenue (former Plekhanov street). By the way, I really liked the avenue, even more than the Rustaveli ave. I can’t now recall the name of the small restaurant we went to, but the interior was purely Georgian, with antique items, such as cameras and phonographs, and reproductions of Pirosmani’s paintings on the walls (we ate our khachapuris right next to the famous “Feast of Five Princes”).

If yesterday we visited ancient churches and temples, today, having driven us through a quarter that was very reminiscent of the Kubinka and generally the area of Teze Bazar in Baku, Zviad brought us to a modern temple, visible from almost any point of Tbilisi – Tsminda Sameba, the Holy Trinity Cathedral. It occupies a large area, around which you can still see construction works, like columns being built and stone carving works going on.

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Apparently, the plan of our guide consisted of alternating spiritual visits with pure entertainment – undoubtedly the cableway to the Narikala forthress at the same Mount Mtatsminda was part of the latter. It is not at all scary here – unlike the one I took to the Great Wall in China, where you literally float over the abyss, risking dropping your shoes there (while also afraid to drop yourself!). Here you just sit in a closed cabin for 5-6 people and peacefully look at the Kura and its banks underneath. We didn’t get to see the fortress, but had the opportunity to be photographed with a falcon, and then descended to the Europe Square using the same cableway. We saw a few people dressed as Santa Clauses riding bicycles, and also something that made me really emotional – street vendors of roasted peanuts and sunflower seeds, which are measured with a large or a small faceted glass and then sold in paper cornets: where are the days when we had the exact same thing in Baku?..

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Both today and yesterday we saw a lot of purely Tbilisian houses, clinging on the steep cliffs over the Kura, with a lot of balconies. Today we also went into one of the old quarters. Here we found the famous sulfur baths, which we could sense even from afar for the very specific smell of hydrogen sulphide. We walked up to a waterfall in a narrow crevice.

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Ever since yesterday we really wanted to buy churchkhela – the traditional sausage-shaped candy made of grape must with nuts, but Zviad had told us not to buy it not just anywhere but in trusted places, and so he took us to one. The tiny convenience store seemed to have a whole market squeezed in it: they had meat, and cheese, and pickles, and a variety of fruit-vegetables, and well, of course, the coveted churchkhela. Unluckily, we had to wait for the sales assistant of this particular department for quite a while – it turned out that he had been queueing at a supermarket nearby to buy a box of champagne.

Towards the end of the day we went up the Mtatsminda for the third time, this time by a cable car. The first stop was near the pantheon we’d already seen, and the second one led us to a large park, with lots of swings and carousels, with New Year’s songs coming from the speakers, with a house with upturned balconies – as if it was standing upside down. And again I was wrapped in nostalgia – the Baku Boulevard in the days of my childhood looked exactly like this, even the benches were similar. But it’s not that I’m trying to say that anything around looks old and shabby, straight from those times – the park is exactly maintained like this, just as the buildings are restored, as I said before.

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Overflowing with impressions, we ended the day in the khinkali restaurant right near the hotel, where we tried different kinds of khinkali: with meat, mushrooms, cheese – and were very pleased. Thus, our stay in Tbilisi was brief, but very impressive.

Posted in English, Europe, Georgia

Georgia – Day 1

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

27 December 2014

We arrived last night, and found Zviad, the guide meeting us, very easily, so logistic-wise everything went really smoothly. The smooth start actually began at the passport control, where each of us was handed a bottle of Saperavi wine – turns out, they are given out to all foreigners entering the country, isn’t that surprising? Zviad drove us a bit around the night Tbilisi, which immediately aroused nostalgia – the non-central streets seemed very similar to the Baku of my childhood. We got particularly excited when shown the river Kura and then the Avlabari neighbourhood, and started quoting the Khanuma movie.

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It was decided that on the first day we would make a sortie out of Tbilisi and leave the city sightseeing for the second one. The weather promised to be nice (and honestly fulfilled the promise), even though it was quite chilly near the Jvari (meaning ‘cross’) monastery where we headed first, and the puddles were flecked with ice. The monastery is located atop a rocky mountain, from which one can see the Mtskheta town and also exactly what was described in Lermontov’s poem ‘The Novice’ (‘Mtsyri’): “…where soundingly together flow Aragva and Kura – the place, where, like two sisters, they embrace…”, i.e. where the blue Aragvi merges with the yellow Kura, and the line separating these waters is very clearly noticeable. The reason why the monastery is called the Holy Cross monastery is not because it has the shape of a cross, as one might expect, but because it was here where St. Nino of Georgia, a female evangelist, erected a cross. The legend says that this very cross lies in the foundation of the monastery.

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We drove off along Aragvi, on the Georgian Military Highway, to see the ancient fortress of Ananuri. The places around were very picturesque, even though it’s not the best season now – in autumn or spring it must look absolutely spectacular! On our way we took pictures of the Zhinvali reservoir from various angles. It’s also very beautiful, but that’s somewhat overshadowed by the fact that to create this beauty (which of course has practical use too!) three villages had to be flooded. We visited one of the churches in the castle complex, while the other one was closed. Zviad told us that once all the walls in the first church were painted with frescoes, but then during the stay of a Russian garrison in the fortress, they were all covered with a thick layer of lime. Relatively recently a small area was cleared and a really impressive fresco of St. George was discovered. I climbed to the top of the tower, which was quite difficult and scary, considering the narrow passages and steep, broken stairs. But I got the chance to look out of a loophole, although it was so narrow that I couldn’t really see much.

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From here we drove back to Mtskheta and stopped in the old part of the city. In general, as we noted, it is peculiar to Georgia that most of the ancient and old buildings are restored in their original form. Therefore, all the houses are colorful, neat, with traditional Georgian balconies and look very good. There are little shops selling souvenirs, wine, churchkhela (Georgian sweet “sausages” made of fruit and nuts) with sellers strongly beckoning tourists to drink with them all along the road to the Cathedral of Mtskheta. Our guide even argued with someone, reproaching him for trying to “recapture” his guests.

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The Cathedral of Mtskheta, or Svetitskhoveli (translated as “the life-giving pillar”) is a patriarchal cathedral with the seat of the Patriarch standing right in the centre thereof. It’s a burial place of the last kings of Georgia and various princes, including a few from the Mukhrani branch of the famous Bagrationi dynasty. The Cathedral is one of the three main cathedral in country, symbolising the central Georgia, or the Kartli region. The Alaverdi temple in Kakheti, respectively, represents the east of Georgia and the Bagrat temple in Kutaisi represents the west. Even in Soviet times, it was common among the youth of Tbilisi to wed in Svetitskhoveli, so every spring after Easter endless wedding processions stretched from Tbilisi.

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Instead of the anticipated three hours we spent five on the road, by the end of which we were absolutely starving. We wanted to taste some proper Georgian cuisine, and on our return to Tbilisi we were taken to a restaurant called “Zakhar Zakharich”. The food there was really delicious. Our menu consisted of the kharcho soup, Imeretian khachapuri (cheese pie), aubergines with walnuts, ojakhuri (roasted pork with potatoes and onions), shkmeruli (fried chicken with lots of garlic) and jigar (liver) on the grid. As for the wine, we had red Saperavi in pitchers. In short, we had a great treat and only paid 127 GEL for four of us, which makes about 70 USD , or 54 AZN.

The only thing we could do after that was taking a two-hour nap. In the evening, we walked along the holiday-decorated Rustaveli Avenue, which was right around the corner from our hotel. It was beautiful, but in many ways reminded of Baku – potholes here and there, lots of construction, cars on the sidewalks, cigarette smoke everywhere – as most of the population seems to smoke. However, the walk was still nice.

Posted in English, Europe, Italy, Naples

Adventures of the Azeris in Italy – Naples

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

The transfer to Naples also started with quite a bit of a hassle. The first contributors to this were the Ischian hotel personnel. Not only couldn’t they figure out how to fill out our check-out documentation, demanding our fiscal codes, which of course, we’d never had, they also messed up our transfer – having made us pay a tidy sum for it, they sent us to the taxi stand on foot, promising to take the care of our luggage and have some hefty chaps deliver it to the same taxi stand in 10 minutes. But as 10, and then even 20 minutes passed, the luggage still did not appear anywhere in sight. Even the frail elderly driver – the one who had driven us here when we just arrived – started getting nervous. We called the hotel reception – just to hear the deadpan response that the hefty chaps were just about to leave the hotel (!). Goodness, we only had half an hour before the ferry departure, which was almost as long as necessary to get to the port in Forio! We also had a terrible suspicion that we would need to spend a lot of time to buy the tickets, but fortunately, the driver had already bought them. This somewhat smoothed out the situation, and we made it to the ferry.

The Neapolitan part of the transfer took place without incidents. But the hotel, quite frankly, surprised us – the entrance to the promised historical palace was through some dilapidated gateway, leading to a tiny elevator. But for every negative there is always a positive: it turned out that the rooms booked for us were being renovated, about which we had been notified via email – too late, though. Therefore, we were kindly moved to another hotel of their chain, a better one, and, most importantly, with a much better location – in particular, the tour bus stop was just around the corner.

After a nice lunch in a small trattoria (we had Neapolitan fried pizza – at least some diversity!), we rushed to the bus.

Surprisingly enough, initially we didn’t perceive Naples as too much of a coveted place to see. We were even saying that if our next day’s flight to Rome hadn’t been so early we would have had time to catch the very first boat directly from Ischia and would not have needed to move to Naples. How very wrong we were! Naples is an amazing city, with magnificent palaces and stunning views of the Gulf of Naples. However, our Amalfi tour guide Lena had been right in saying that it was a city of great contrasts: you can easily see piles of garbage, chipped walls, fluttering laundry – and then, just round the corner, a palace and a park of exceptional beauty. So, we happily rode the tour bus to the sounds of great Neapolitan songs – such as ‘ A Serenata ‘E Pullecenella, Marechiare, Piscatore’ E Pusilleco, and of course , the most famous one O Sole Mio.

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Gulf of Naples

Naples - Castel Nuovo

Naples

As usual, our tickets were valid for all the routes, and we had the time to take two out of three: to historical sites and along the coast. And there were so many tempting places we could have visited if we only had had more time: the Aquarium, all those palaces and museums; even walking on those streets a bit more would have been lovely. Not only is the city beautiful, but it also has some sort of a special spirit and charm, so Naples became the truly magnificent completion of our trip to southern Italy, and even gave it a special meaning.

Naples

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Gulf of Naples

Gulf of Naples