Travelling Leila

My impressions about the places I visit

Archive for the tag “Old City”

Vietnam – Day 6

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

10 June 2017

Yesterday we felt a bit disappointed that we were staying in this wonderful hotel with a swimming pool one night only, so even though today’s excursion was supposed to start at 9am, we were up at 6.30 already, to have time to enjoy both a lovely breakfast with lots of fruits by the pool, and the pool itself.

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So at 9am sharp we checked out from the hotel and went on a walking tour around the Old Town. We were there last night already, but under daylight the streets look totally different, not to mention that we had explanations this time.

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The Old Town is really beautiful, after all it’s included in the list of UNESCO’s cultural heritage for a reason – in fact it’s so beautiful that even the 38C heat and the scorching sun, under which we had to walk for two hours, didn’t spoil the impression the least bit.

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We walked into the Old Town through the Japanese bridge, which back in the days used to separate the Japanese quarter from the Chinese one. The bridge was built almost 400 years ago, and since then is being periodically renovated, especially during the rain and flood season, when the water level rises and floods it. The bridge, just like everything in the Old Town, is decorated with lanterns – white ones, which is perfectly normal for the Japanese, and which, according to Nam, used to cause the displeasure of the Chinese, who consider white to be the colour of mourning.

The Old Town consists of several streets adjoining the Thu Bon river, on the other side of which we can see much newer buildings, but also stylized as old to attract tourists.

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I guess, in the daytime, the streets we are walking around look even more beautiful than in the evening, as the architecture of buildings and pretty blossoming trees are better visible, plus it’s much less crowded, and the lanterns, although not lit, are still there.

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Our tickets included four attractions of choice, and Nam started with the Chua Ong Pagoda located in Chinatown and built in the XVII century.

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Next in our programme was a visit to one of the oldest family houses in Hoi An. The family still lives here, on the first floor. We were only shown only the ground floor, where the interior was decorated with elements of Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese styles. For example, there was an interesting writing in Chinese characters, where each character was comprised of birds cut out of mother-of-pearl.

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Next, we visited a little performance with songs, traditional dances with pots and fans and a game like bingo, where everyone was given a card with different Vietnamese words, and the singer sang a song and picked out the sticks on which the words were written. We weren’t the lucky ones to win, but some lady got a small silk lantern.

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I’m not really mentioning another pagoda we visited, especially since I don’t even remember its name, but the Old Town tour ended with a visit to Central Market. The idea of a big food market is nothing unheard of, but the goods displayed are very exotic to us: there are tons and tons of tropical fruits, and a huge amount of unfamiliar herbs (I already mentioned how I had the impression that the Vietnamese eat everything that grows), and different types of hot pepper, and also something looking like a huge dining area with cooked foods.

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That marked the end of our Hoi An tour, and we headed back to Danang, because that is where the airport, from which we were later supposed to fly to Hanoi, was located. But our tireless guide still had plenty of energy, so he arranged two more photostops for us. The first one was on the beach, from where the Lady Buddha statue was distinctly visible. To be honest, a beach doesn’t make much sense unless you can swim and sunbathe there, but nevertheless we took a couple of photos.

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The second stop is by the Han river, because one of the main attractions in Danang, where our guide lives, by the way, is a dragon-shaped bridge across this river. And nearby there is a marble statue shaped like a fish with the head of a dragon, for which Danang is sometimes called the second Singapore. The origin of this strage creature is from the legend about the koi carp, which will turn into a dragon if it can climb up a waterfall. The sculpture depicts exactly this moment of transformation.

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But even that wasn’t it yet – there was still a museum visit awaiting us. It was the Museum of Cham Sculpture and, quite honestly, it was already superfluous, as we were too exhausted by the terrible heat. But we still made a whirlwind tour around the museum. The museum hosts sculptures and architecture elements of the Champa kingdom, which existed in the Middle Ages in Central Vietnam and where Hinduism was practiced. The French archaeologist Henri Parmentier discovered these artifacts in the early 20th century, and this museum was opened as a result in 1919, thanks to which, they are still intact, as many other Cham sculptures and temples were damaged during the Indochina and Vietnam wars.

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Completely exhausted, we headed to the Danang airport. Nam escorted us to the check-in desk and even checked us in for the flight. We also had lunch right at the airport.

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The flight was delayed by 20-30 minutes, but then again we didn’t have to hang around at the airport on the back end, since there is no passport control on domestic flights. In Hanoi, we were picked up by our new guide, Sunny, and headed to the hotel.

On the way from the airport you immediately notice that Hanoi is different. But I haven’t yet fully understood what exactly makes it different from Saigon, for instance. Perhaps, it’s the fact that the city is more modern, yet has more old buildings, and even the people look different – I mean, however ridiculous this may sound, they more look like urban residents. The façades of buildings are very narrow, like everywhere else in Vietnam, which I don’t think I’ve mentioned before, but here we actually asked Sunny about the reason, and he explained that in the old days there was a special tax directly related to the width of the façade.

Our hotel is located in the Old Quarter, apart from which Hanoi also have the New and the French Quarters. While we were waiting to check in, we were treated to some nice refreshments, as usual.

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In the evening we walked up to the lake, also in the Old Quarter, to get some food, but the walk turned out to be more stress than pleasure. The traffic in the streets is even crazier than in Ho Chi Minh City, and the sidewalks are mostly non-functional – they are packed with parked scooters, street vendors and street food stalls with low tables and stools next to them – so one has to walk on the road, constantly shying away from scooters. On the other hand, there was such a thick crowd in the pedestrian zone near the lake, that even in the absence of vehicles it wasn’t too much fun either.

One of our observations in Vietnam, by the way, is about the general cleanliness. I mean, the streets are often chaotic, the sidewalks are cluttered, there is street food everywhere – yet, despite all this, there is no dirt, stench, rot and filth. Everything gets cleaned. Even toilets, albeit sometimes very shabby, are always clean and not disgusting.

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Vietnam – Day 5

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

9 June 2017

The day has been very intense, but, to be honest, with the occasional feeling that everyone wants money from you. In Ho Chi Minh City this feeling wasn’t there and we even got the impression that Vietnam is a country not yet spoiled by tourism, because this industry is still developing here. But the further you move to more tourist places, the more this impression is dissipated.

I’ll come back to that, but first things first. In the morning, we checked out of our hotel in Hue and headed to see the imperial tombs nearby.

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Today we have a new guide, a young man named Nam, who seems very diligent. Right on the outskirts of the city, we saw a lot of aromatic sticks for temples being sold along the roadside, and he asked the driver to stop the car so that we could see how they are made. Of course, the seller immediately started actively persuading us to buy regular souvenirs…

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As I said, according to the programme, we had mausoleum visits planned, and the first one was the mausoleum of Tu Duc, who was the fourth emperor of the Nguyen dynasty and the last emperor of independent Vietnam – his successors ruled the French colony already. The presence of the ruling dynasty was perfectly acceptable for the French, since it facilitated the governing of people, so they didn’t get rid of it.

The mausoleum was built when Tu Duc was still alive and is not just a tomb, but in fact a whole complex that functioned as the Emperor’s summer cottage until his death, and later became home to his numerous wives and concubines.

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By the way, despite the fact that Tu Duc had a hundred or two wives and concubines, he did’t leave any offsprings, so his nephew inherited the throne after him.

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Interestingly, no one knows where exactly Tu Duc is buried in the mausoleum – it would seem logical that if there is a tomb, then that’s where he should be buried, but Nam explained to us that the emperor was clever and, considering the amount of treasures to be buried with him, he ordered to dig numerous tunnels under the territory of the mausoleum and bury him in one of them, so that no one knew where exactly. Nowadays, although with modern technologies determining the exact location wouldn’t be much of a problem, the government specifically decided not to do so.

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Our itinerary assumed that next we would go see the tomb of his grandfather – the very Minh Mang that I already mentioned in connection with traditional medicine. But Nam pointed out that even though the standard programme includes this mausoleum because of its convenient location, it is too similar to the first one, and, perhaps, we would find it more interesting if we went to see something different. So, he suggested another mausoleum instead, located slightly further – that of Khai Ding, the 12th and the penultimate emperor of the Nguyen dynasty, who ruled in the early 20th century. We agreed.

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This mausoleum was indeed completely different – the architecture contained mixed elements of both traditional Oriental and European styles. The territory was quite small in comparison with the previous complex, which had pavilions, gardens and a lake, but the mausoleum took 11 years to build, whereas the previous one took only three.

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This is not surprising at all, because the tomb itself is truly luxurious: the walls are decorated with various types of ceramics – local Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese – and the ceilings are painted with 99 dragons, in such way that you can’t track the beginning and end of each.

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So, the buildings are impressive, I could totally have walked around here for a long time if it hadn’t been for the unbearable heat, which made me want to get back into the car as quickly as possible.

It’s time to say goodbye to Hue and move on, heading to to Hoi An, where we should spend the night. But on the way to Hoi An there is still much to see!

The road started climbing up the mountains, and the places around were becoming more and more picturesque. We stopped every now and then to take pictures, then had a short comfort stop in some roadside cafe, which was part of a family business for production of oysters and pearls – right here, across the road, there was a large shallow lake where the molluscs were bred.

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There is actually a tunnel through the mountain, but we drove over the Hai Van Pass instead to enjoy the picturesque views of the green slopes and the sea.
At the summit of the pass we made a photo-stop yet again, as there are some ruins that used to be a French fortress, and later an American bunker.

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The road from Hue to Danang, where we are going, takes two hours. We don’t stop in Danang itself, but Nam told us that the city is quite new, industrial, and has a large seaport – back in the days, the port was located in Hoi An, where we are heading eventually, but the French transferred it right here.

Actually, back when we were booking our tour, we made a special request to visit Danang, as we wanted to see the statue of Lady Buddha. That is why we were taken to the Son Tra mountain, also known as the Monkey Mountain, where this statue is located. Besides the statue, there is a whole complex with carved gates and the Linh Ung pagoda.

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The pagoda is quite new, built in 2010, and the statue is even newer. I must say, Lady Buddha is very impressive, and no wonder: it is 70 metres high, made of a single piece of marble and can be seen from a long distance, almost 35km. It’s facing the bay, since it is supposed to protect sailors – it resonates with the Chinese goddess Tin Hau, perhaps the idea is even inspired by her. I was generally surprised by the idea of a female Buddha, but Nam explained that even though Buddha is a man in Indian Buddhism, in the Chinese version of Buddhism, under the influence of which this temple complex was built, there is also a female Buddha for balance (like yin and yang).

Apart from Lady Buddha, there is also a small Laughing Buddha statue nearby, which is said to bring good luck if you rub his belly. We stand in front of him to take a picture of Lady Buddha, and suddenly we hear loud sounds from the pond, resembling a dog barking, which turn out to be toads croaking!

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Nam suggested that we have lunch in Danang on our way to the statue, but we were anxious that it might rain like it did yesterday in the pagoda of the Heavenly Lady and ruin the sightseeing experience that we’d been looking forward to from the very beginning, so we preferred to see Lady Buddha first, while the weather was still good (albeit very hot) and have lunch later when we get to Hoi An.

Along the coastline all the way from Danang to Hoi An we saw a huge number of hotels and fancy five-star beach resorts, but even more than the already existing ones were still under construction – clearly, tourism is developing extensively in this region and in the future Danang intends to compete with the resorts of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.

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On the way, we made another stop, although our stomachs were already dreaming about food, at a marble factory, which there are quite a few of in Vietnam, and they showed us how marble statues were made. Looking at the statues themselves was actually more interesting than observing the production process: there were smaller replicas of the Lady Buddha statue, other Buddha statues, various animals and mythical creatures, Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary (10% of the Vietnamese population are Catholics). At the factory we were also very actively solicited to buy souvenirs, but we didn’t like the little figurines that much and the big statues would obviously be quite problematic to buy.

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Thank goodness, there were now only a few kilometres separating us from our desired lunch, and finally we stopped at some roadside restaurant. First, for some reason, we had pretty low expectations of the restaurant – probably, because it was located right next to the noisy highway and, since the owner was apparently working in the kitchen by himself, the service wasn’t too prompt – but then we were served delicious salads and grilled fish, and also treated with orange slices and chewing gum when we asked for the bill, so our opinion of the restaurant made a complete U-turn.

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What Nam told us about Hoi An was that it is an old trading city, where the big seaport was located between the 16th and the 18th. Trade with China, Japan and European countries was conducted through the port, which is why there were many Chinese and Japanese living here.

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The city is famous for silk production, so we made yet another stop, this time at a silk factory. Here we saw all the stages of silk production – first some gross white worms swarming among mulberry leaves, then the cocoons, and then the thread and the finished fabric. Right at the factory, there is also a store selling ready-made fabrics and clothes and you can also order something from a tailor and get it ready the next, or even the same day. Generally in Hoi An, as we noticed, many ateliers provide similar services.

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Finally, we got to the Little Hoian Central hotel, which turned out to be a pleasant surprise for us. The hotel is a three-star one, but cannot even be compared, for example, with London three-star hotels, where you get a tiny room and a rather meagre breakfast – this one has an outdoor pool and a spa, the room is huge, with a balcony, and the interior is in the typical Asian Colonial style of the 19th century: even the phone and the plumbing are stylised.

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Since we were extremely tired, the pool and the spa came in really handy: first we washed off all the fatigue in the pleasant water, and then once again went for a wonderful massage.

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We had the evening free, so we made a sortie to the Old Town. One of Hoi An’s features is silk lanterns, and the whole Old Town is decorated with them, which makes it look particularly cool in the evening. The Old Town is only accessible to pedestrians and cyclists, and boy is it great to finally relax from these chaotic scurrying scooters everywhere! The zone is clearly very touristy, and there are mostly shops selling souvenirs, silk clothes and lanterns. The crowd is very thick, there are lots of foreign tourists, and even more local ones: it’s summer now, children have holidays, so many families travel around the country.

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There are also plenty of cafes and restaurants, and we decide to have dinner in one of them, attracted by the nice view of its outdoor seating area among bamboos. It was a good choice – we ordered grilled fish again, and mine was wrapped in banana leaves and incredibly tasty. Plus we were entertained by lovely music: there is an international choir competition happening now in Hoi An, and the performance took place right in the street near our restaurant.

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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.

Georgia – Day 1

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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.

Croatia – Day 8

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

31 August 2012 – Friday

After the two tours we had had with the “Elite Travel” company, where we were picked up next to the “President” hotel, our impressions about this company and their work were quite good. And looks like we put an “evil eye” on them: our today’s trip to the Korčula island started with a hitch: the bus didn’t arrive. It turned out that the day before we had been forgotten to be included in the list. As a result, we were picked up by a separate minibus and delivered to the port of Gruž, where we eventually found our group and the guide. The guide (also named Ivana) initially seemed to us a bit rude (instead of apologising immediately, she attacked us – saying something like, come on, what’s your problem, you’ve been finally brought here after all!), and most importantly, uninteresting – she was literally falling asleep while making comments in English and German. She seemed more willing to speak German, by the way – generally I noticed a clear preference shown to German tourists here.

Another problem – among the group there was a family with a two-year-old toddler, for whom this long road, quite obviously, was way too long: in the good moments he was spinning like mad, while in the bad ones he was crying and throwing up. So, his presence added neither peace, nor fresh air to other passengers.

We climbed high into the mountains, again very close to the burning Bosnia. In the town of Slano we picked the last passengers. The location is called Slano (“salty”), because, starting almost from the first settlements, when salt used to be worth its weight in gold, it was mined here. Because of this salt, the Ottoman Empire’s caravan ways passed through these places.

This time the road was totally crazy. In some parts of it even looking down was scary, and at the same time it was hard to tear oneself away from the window – the view was unbelievably beautiful!

Virtually the entire foreseeable space around us was covered with vineyards. The plan was to visit one of them for wine tasting on our way back. Our guide told us that mainly red wine is produced here, and Postup is considered to be the best of all. Looking ahead, I can mention that Korčula is famous for its white wine, Pošip.

We were transported to Korčula on a small shuttle boat from Orebič (a very nice town, by the way), and got to observe how cars and even buses were transported on a large ferry.

In the town of Korčula we were to visit the Old Town, and the whole group was divided into English speakers and German speakers. The English speakers stayed with our gloomy, moody and sleepy guide, – and that was when she suddenly revived, and showed great artistry and a sense of humour.

First thing, she told us about the local “wind rose”. There is the north wind “bura”, which blows in winter and brings clear and sunny weather, although lowering the temperature to zero. There is a south wind called “jugo” or “siroc”, the locals’ least favourite: it blows from the Sahara in summer and brings dust, and, oddly enough, rain. The city walls are located so that this wind could penetrate the city as little as possible. Finally, the wind most preferred by the population is the western “mistral”, bringing cool air in summer. The city is open for this wind from the sea, and, as Ivana joked, this was the first air-conditioning system in the world.

On the city gates the name of the first Croatian King Tomislav is engraved, and above it there is the Venetian winged lion, as the city used to belong to the Venetian Republic for a long time. These lions usually have their attributes, or symbols, showing how easy or difficult it was to get into the town. If the lion has a closed book before it, it was hard, and if the book is open, it means that the Venetians were accepted almost with open arms.

We came to Korčula thinking of ​​Marco Polo, because we had heard that he was from here. However, it turned out that Venice claims to be his hometown as well, and also, his home as such does not exist – the assumed house is a ruin. As our guide indignantly mentioned, in communist times nobody really cared about history, and in the times of crisis the intention even was to sell it. Luckily, the town borrowed some money and bought the house out (currently the price of these ruins is half a million euros!), but that money wasn’t enough to restore the building and make a museum out of it, as planned. For the time being some enterprising and patriotic Korčulan opened a souvenir shop named after Marco Polo, and behind it, the Museum of Marco Polo, in a totally different place.

By the way, three things are cited as proof that Marco Polo was born here indeed: first, there is a De Polo family still living here to this day, while in Venice there are no families with such name. Secondly, there exists a register of baptisms of the 14th century, which mentions Marco de Polo. Of course, the great traveller lived in the 13th century, but because it was quite common to give children the names of their ancestors, this could well be some great-grandson of his. Well, and thirdly, the book written by Marco Polo’s cellmate brings his own words, saying that he saw the tower of his hometown Corcyra Melaina and sailed towards it. It is proved that this is how Korčula was called in the ancient times, and no other city, including Venice, has claims on this name. As there is only one tower in the town, the house of Marco Polo could be identified.

One of our stops was in the atrium. Ivana showed us, where the mayor and his secretary would seat and how they would collect the citizens’ complaints, literally portraying and mimicking each of them.

In front of the atrium was the doctor’s house. Doctors used to be lured from Venice, the bait being this very house. The doctor could live there with his family as long as he remained in the service of the city of Korčula.

We made good use of our free time – at least, I got a chance to take a quick dip in the sea, right in the city, among boats – even there it was very clean. I deliberately found a deep place, as it was impossible to get into the water in the shallow part because of the large slippery rocks.

On the way back we were taken to a huge winery belonging to the Matuško family. This family produces 500,000 litres of product annually, 90% of which is red wine, and the remaining 10% is comprised of white wine, dessert wine, schnapps and olive oil. They have huge cellars, completely cluttered with enormous barrels.

The first wine we tried was Plavac Mali. The name generally belongs to a grape variety, grown in the continental climate, in places where there is enough water, but not so much sun. 4—5 kg of grapes can be collected from one plant. The wine turns dry and light (only 12.2%), and is only drunk young.

The next wine was Dingač, made from the same grapes variety, but grown in Mediterranean climate: a little water and a lot of sun, and the sunlight comes from three sources: direct, reflected from the sea and reflected from stones. As a result, no more than one kilogramme of grapes is collected from each plant; the wine turns more robust, almost black (14.5%), and is preserved for several years.

The next drink to try was the sweet dessert wine called Prošek. It can be maintained for many years: according to tradition, when a child is born in a family, a barrel of Prošek is made, and it can only be opened at this child’s wedding. Personally, I found it it too sweet. And finally there was a 40% grappa and a 25% cherry brandy, made from this very grappa.

We then had a short stop in the town of Ston. There, too, there is the old town and a fortress, but we didn’t get to see them.

Croatia – Day 7

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30 August 2012 – Thursday

Today, by contrast, was a very active day: we took the long-awaited trip to Montenegro. The mountain forest road, which took us quite long to drive through until the border, was indeed beautiful, but the day was extremely hazy. At first we thought it was fog, but then it turned out that it was the smoke from forest fires in Bosnia. We were told that the situation was really critical there, so a few sections of Croatian firefighters were sent for help.

In general, our guide Petra told us a lot of things, mostly about Croatia, though. For example, we learned that the Lokrum island (very close to Dubrovnik), famous for its parks and entertainment,  had been cursed. A very soon death is believed to await anyone who stays there overnight. The superstitious Dubrovnikers still believe in this, so every day the last, eight o’clock boat to the city is fully packed with people hurrying to leave the island.

We also learned that  Dubrovnikers do not like to rent housing, but tend to buy it instead – so they feel safer. In this case, they have to take mortgage loans for 30-40 years because of very high cost of real estate.

Driving further up in the mountains, we saw three islands from up high: Mrkan (St. Martin), Bobara (St. Barbara) and Supetar (St. Peter’s). In the 14th century, first quarantines in history were located on them, and all those traveling to Dubrovnik (then Ragusa) were required to spend 40 days there, hence the name (from the Italian word “quaranta” – “forty”). Owing to this, plague spread very little in Dubrovnik.

Driving past Konovle, we heard about the fertility of these lands. Here exists a kind of black market for vegetables here: there are women working on the fields, referred to as “our ladies”, who can be called any time and asked to deliver fresh vegetables, which they will do the same day (or, the latest, the next morning), bypassing shops and markets.

We got slightly anxious, approaching the Montenegrin border, and took out our passports and insurance documents in advance. But everything went smoothly and no one got into the bus to check anything – Petra sorted everything out by herself.

Generally, the difference between Croatia and Montenegro can be noticed immediately: Montenegro seems poorer, the houses are more dilapidated, there are lots of signs in Cyrillic script (they use both Latin and Cyrillic scripts here) and in Russian too.

The official currency is euro, even though Montenegro is not part of the EU and not going to be one in the foreseeable future. There is an explanation. This area is located at the junction of the Eurasian and African tectonic plates, which results in frequent earthquakes. After one of such earthquakes in the second half of the XX century, Montenegro had to borrow money from Germany for rehabilitation and reconstruction. When in the 80’s Yugoslavia suffered an economic crisis and, therefore, a high inflation, Montenegro, in order to pay off the debt in German marks, asked for permission to make them their local currency. After Germany switched to euro, so did Montenegro. However, the government does not have the right to print money, it still gets it from Germany.

In general, we were told that the highlanders and the seaside residents were like two different nations. The highlanders used to lead an austere life, and very often, especially during the Second World War, when a family was left without men, some women had to take on the role of head of the family. These women, called “virdžina” (i.e. “virgin”), dressed like men, carried weapons, talked about themselves in the masculine, were always in the company of men, and only performed men’s duties around the house. Nowadays this tradition has practically disappeared. As for the seaside residents, they, in particular Kotorians, used to be were very educated (education was received by both young men and women, even from common families) and looked down upon the highlanders.

When the Boka Kotorska (Kotor Bay) eventually  appeared in sight, we were really disappointed: in the haze it looked like a decal, devoid of any colors, moreover, the fog was so thick that we couldn’t see almost anything. We were taken to a place which was supposed to have a magnificent view and where we could take photos of the Kotor Bay. But there wasn’t much to take pictures of.

And so, sad and disappointed, we drove to a place called Risan, famous for its Roman mosaics. There are the remains of an ancient Roman villa, which has fragments of these mosaics on the floor.

Near the town of Perast we boarded a boat and headed to a small man-made island called Gospa od Škrpjela (Our Lady of the Rocks) with a church of the same name. The origin of the island is rather interesting. For some reason, the Catholics in this area did not have their own church. But once, as legend says, a fisherman found an icon on a rock right in the middle of the Bay. This was considered to be a sign from God, so since then fishermen would throw more and more rocks one on another, after returning from each successful journey and also sank their old ships, loaded with stones.  That is how the island was built.  The tradition to throw rocks still exists – every year, on the day when the icon was found, local people throw more rocks. The church looks very nice inside, with many beautiful canvas by a famous local painter Tripo Kokolja. The altar is made of several kinds of marble, the most rare and expensive of which was exchanged for silver on a  kilogram per kilogram basis.

As we were driving down towards Kotor, Petra told us of some humorous stereotypes which people of the former Yugoslavia have about each other. Thus, the stereotypes are that the Croats are very good singers, but also are too arrogant, the Bosniacs have great sense of humour, but are not particularly bright (sorry, don’t mean to offend anyone – these are not my words, but those of a Croat lady after all!), and the Montenegrins are very lazy. There is even a joke about a competition on who can lie on the road for the longest time. After 24 hours, the competition had to be stopped because the three participating Montenegrins were still lying there with no intention of getting up in the near future. We were shown a card with ten funny Montenegrin Commandments:

In Kotor we were passed to a Russian guide (a lady named Katya, from St. Petersburg, living here for seven years). Very quickly, she walked us around the Old City, as we only had two hours of free time, including a guided tour and lunch. The Kotor city walls are located high in the mountains, and we didn’t get to climb up there. The Old City has plenty of churches and monasteries, the first music school in the Balkans, the first theatre (now it has been sold to become a hotel, so there is no theatre in Kotor anymore). There are both Catholic and Orthodox churches here, but the Catholic ones are more in number – as there are more Catholics here, although generally the majority of Montenegrins are Orthodox. In tough times, many churches had a Catholic and an Orthodox altar at the same time, i.e. were open for both confessions.

Along with other memorable places, our attention was brought to the Pima Palace on the Flour Square. Head of the Pima family used to be one of the largest grain traders here.

Interestingly, in contrast to Dubrovnik, the buildings here are necessarily located at an angle to each other – it was believed that locating them in a row would bring bad luck.

The Kotorians are most proud of the fact that they never were under the Ottoman Empire, even though in their history they used to be subordinate to Venice, were occupied by a Napoleon’s general and by Italian fascists (for two months). On this occasion, we heard a story how Jesus Christ appeared to a girl named Katarina from a mountain village and told her that in two hundred years, the Turks would attack Kotor. The girl didn’t hesitate to come down from the mountains with her mother to warn the Kotorians about the danger. The latter immediately started building a wall to protect their land, succeeded in this and, when the the Turks did attack, they managed to parry the enemy’s strike. Katarina herself had become a nun. In appreciation, her relics were later transferred to the Church of St. Clara, right here, so that the saint would continue to defend the citizens.

By the way, her descent from the mountains was no big deal – we were informed that some inhabitants of the mountain village Njeguši do it every day when delivering products to Kotor.

Driving out of Kotor, we saw a beautiful town on the other side of the bay (the fog had already cleared a little) – either Muo or Prčanj, where we weren’t taken. There was no time left for bathing either, although there were beaches here and there.

On the way back we were told that during the previous tour a few days before, the car queue on the border was seven kilometres! The most thorough shakedowns are usually undergone by those with Albanian and Kosovar passports – this road is actually a drug “Silk Road”. Recently the guards caught a couple in a car with German plates, transporting drugs for the sum of 10 million euros. But this time we were lucky, there was only one bus ahead of us, from Ukraine, which took quite a long time to check though.

Croatia – Day 3

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26 August 2012 – Sunday

Today we went to the city centre again – not just randomly, like the day before, but on an Old City walking tour. Yesterday, while watching tourists walking on the city walls under the burning sun, I personally felt their pain, already sadly imagining myself in their ranks. The reality was far more enjoyable: we met our guide Ivana – a very nice girl with a bandaged leg – and within a group of 8 people we walked around the Old City in a “derated mode”, trying to avoid direct sunlight and even sitting down every now and then. The tour lasted two hours, during which we learned a lot of interesting things about Dubrovnik.

So, Dubrovnik once used to be an independent republic, known as Ragusa in Latin. The republic was democratic (albeit conditionally, as the right to vote belonged only to male noblemen). The city had a rector, who was elected for a 30-day period during which he had no right to leave the palace, where he lived alone, without family. Apparently, this was done to ensure that he did not have any outside influences and cared only about the government’s interest.

The Republic had very strict rules and laws, concerning even the construction of buildings. Thus, the buildings had to look pretty much the same – no one was allowed to show off their wealth, at least outwardly. The windows of neighbouring houses were not to be facing each other, as everyone had the right for privacy. Nobody could build their house even a foot or two ahead of others; the punishment for violation of the law was indeed very strict: the house would be demolished, and its owner would face a penalty charge AND go to jail.

Foreigners were allowed to stay in the city only during the day – at night they were expelled, and the city gates were locked. The only exception was made for the Jewish quarter, due to the extreme utility of its inhabitants to the city. But this quarter too was locked at night on both sides, so formally it was kind of outside of the city. When Dubrovnikers were blamed for the fact that they were cherishing the infidels, the very diplomatic city authorities replied that the Republic often had to deal with other infidels – the Ottoman Empire – so it was better to have these infidels communicate between each other. By the way, this quarter has the second oldest synagogue in Europe, the first one being in Prague.

In general, it must be said that the mercantile Dubrovnik had always managed to juggle between its main enemies: the Venetian Republic and the Ottoman Empire. Its motto was “Non bene pro toto libertas venditur auro” (meaning something like “Liberty can’t be sold for all the gold in the world”), yet the authorities spared no expense for buying this liberty – that is, they paid off their enemies.

On one of the side streets we saw the Church of St. Roch – the patron saint of plague patients. There is an interesting story associated with it: once children used to play some football-like game just outside of the church and kept pounding the ball against its walls. At some point the priest had enough of it, so he scribbled a curse on the wall saying “May peace be with you. Remember of death, those playing the ball”. The children scribbled a response – something like “We want to play – and so we will!”

On one of the staircases Ivana asked us if we could figure out why the balustrade was solid up to a certain height. Our version was that it was done in care of children, so that they didn’t fall out. The reality was nothing like that. Noble ladies, climbing the stairs on their way to the nearby Dominican church, of course, had to lift their skirts, revealing their ankles. The architecture of the staircase did not allow loitering young men to stare at them from below.

The old town is associated with many contrarieties, for example, in 1806 Napoleon deceived the authorities of Dubrovnik, asking to give him permission to just pass through the city to hit Montenegrins – the Russian allies. The authorities trustfully opened the gates for the French emperor and… the city was seized. Napoleon even built a fort atop of Mount Srđ. However, these fortifications built by an invader, saved Dubrovnik during the war for independence in 1991. By the way, during this war, Dubrovnik was besieged for real: from the sea it was blocked by the Montenegrin Navy, and from the land it was bombed by Serbs, who also cut off all communications. People, believing that the Old City was a safe place (as bombing historical objects is prohibited by international military law) rushed under the protection of its walls. However, as Ivana told us with indignation, it was bombed in the first place.

But finally there was peace, and as previously, Dubrovnik is respected among Croatian cities. If someone says, “I’m from The City”, this means that they are from Dubrovnik. The rest find this pretty annoying, but nevertheless they have also become used to calling Dubrovnik “The City”.

At the end of the tour Ivana told us a touching story about the local “Romeo and Juliet” – Silvana from the Roman settlement and Dubravko from the Slavic one. As it always happens with lovers from warring clans, they perished. Interestingly, the names of both, each in their own language, are related to the word “forest”, and the name of Dubrovnik itself is derived from the word “dub”, meaning  “oak”.

Left on our own, we walked along the main shopping street, but didn’t find anything decent in terms of good value for money. Tourist shops, no more than that. We wanted to have lunch in the Old City, but somehow ended up in the same terrace restaurant on the Pile Square, as yesterday.

After lunch we went back to the hotel, and as intended, swam in the sea, right until a tangible wind got up, bringing some rubbish to our pristine shores. From the evening impressions it’s worth mentioning an awfully brazen cat in the restaurant: it was not actually begging for food, but rather demanding it discontentedly, wagging its tail menacingly and sharpening its claws on our chairs no less threateningly. Fortunately, one of us didn’t like his Caesar salad, so virtually all of the chicken went to the impertinent animal.

The evening ended with a pleasant walk along the sea, so on the whole the day hasn’t been lived in vain.

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