Armenia, Easter, Genocide, Georgia, Gori, Holocaust, Khachapuri, Orthodox easter, Sleeper train, Stalin, Tbilisi, Yerevan
I am not a religious man. (Except, of course, when it comes to travel). Nevertheless, when the opportunity to travel to the oldest Christian country in the world over Easter was presented to me, I didn’t hesitate. Praise the lord. My interest in Armenia, however, is both more political and much more recent than anything that happened in the levant 2,000 years ago. My maternal family are Greek-Cypriot and, thus, somewhat anti-Turkish. In the same way that Osama Bin Laden was anti-western. Without going into historical detail, the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus left 1619 Greek-Cypriots missing. And they are still unaccounted for. The island is still divided – Nicosia being the only city left still bisected by a wall. My enemy’s enemy is my friend, and all. Consequently, I have always been pro-Kurdish, and pro-Armenian. And all this despite the Kardashians. The Armenians, of course, were the people that the Turks attempted to wipe from the face of the earth back in 1915. Over a million killed in a systematic pogrom, one that gave Hitler ideas. And I’m not kidding here. Disgustingly, despite much international pressure, Turkey still refuse to admit that anything happened, let alone apologise for it.
Speaking of systematic genocide, the same trip would afford the opportunity to travel to Georgia and visit the birthplace of one J. Jughashvili. Otherwise known as Joseph Stalin. I only had a week to visit both countries, so decisions had to be made. In the end, I opted for Easter in Georgia (even though it is Armenia that is the world’s oldest Christian country) and then on to Armenia afterwards. The reason? This meant I could be in Yerevan for April 24th – Genocide Memorial Day. And there was no way some piffling minor Christian festival was going to stop me from experiencing that.
Tbilisi is an easy, 3.5 hour direct flight from Dubai. The main problem, once arrived and out of the bilingually-signed airport, is the language. Specifically, the alphabet which is entirely different from the Latin alphabet. Whilst I can, at a push, read Greek and Russian script (though not necessarily understand either), here I was at a loss. Luckily, I had arranged to be collected from the airport by the hotel at which I had booked. I had chosen to stay at the Silver Hotel – and my first worry was that it was a bit too homely. In that it kind of felt like somebody’s home. Whilst I am aware that for many people this would be seen as a good thing (hence the hotel’s excellent customer rating on both Booking.com and Trip Advisor), for me it is something of a no-no. Being a miserable introvert, I much, much prefer the anonymity of big, impersonal hotels. I needn’t have worried. Even though the owner was very friendly indeed, it never crossed my own invisible (and for most people strangely positioned) line into over-friendliness. Through the hotel, I was able to book a tour of Georgia as well as to procure a map of Tbilisi and some idea of what to see. The hotel itself was situated perfectly for me – although it is in a tangle of tiny streets that is initially quite hard to navigate, it is right in between the old town with its churches, bars and restaurants, and the new town where you’ll find the shops and the museums.
I ventured out into the new town first – traversing the length of Shota Rustaveli Avenue (the city’s main thoroughfare), from Freedom Square right by the hotel, all the way up to the Rustaveli metro station at its far end. It was pleasant enough, with interesting views of the major administrative buildings, the museums (musea?) and the opera house. Though if that was all there was to Tbilisi I should probably have been somewhat disappointed. It is, after all, just another shopping street, with branches of the same shops you see on pretty much any other major shopping street (Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan being one exception). There was one place definitely worth the walk though. At first difficult to find, down a not-very-well-signed alley and in a courtyard, Prospero’s Books and Caliban’s Coffee is an oasis. And I mean that in a welcome-drinking-hole-in-thousands-of-square-miles-of-desert way, not in a fairly-crappy-band-from-Manchester way. It is a sizeable English-language bookshop with a very pleasant coffee house attached. The weather was mild enough to sit at one of the tables in the courtyard and digest some quality fiction along with a very fresh Americano. Worth the trip!
The old town was my favourite part of Tbilisi – a jumble of houses, a mix of gentrified buildings and old houses with sagging roofs and rotting wooden shutters. It is where you will find the city’s two cathedrals, most of the bars and some of the best khachapuri you will ever eat. Ah, khachapuri. I knew nothing about Georgian cuisine before I arrived, but by the time I left, I was in love. Khachapuri, if you don’t know, is the Georgian national dish and is, if I may oversimplify things enormously, a catch-all term for about 15 different types of melted-cheese-on-bread type dishes. And who doesn’t love melted cheese on bread? (Incidentally, if you answered no to that, please stop reading now. Leave my site and never return. I’m sorry, but we simply cannot be friends). My favourite was khachapuri adjaruli, a sort of canoe of bread filled with melted cheese, butter and eggs. I’m pretty sure that after a few weeks of eating nothing but khachapuri adjaruli (which I think I would if I lived here) it would kill you, but, hell, what a way to go.
Also, high above the old town, is Mtatsminda Park, or the park of the TV tower. A cable car runs from near Liberty Square to the TV tower at the very top of the hill. The park contains a small fun-fair (which didn’t interest me, as, clearly, I do not like fun) including a ferris wheel. Which I stupidly allowed my travel buddy to persuade me to board. Not only, as it turns out, were the capsules magnifiers for the springtime sunshine, leading to the feeling of being in a gently swaying sauna, I also very quickly remembered just how terrified I am of heights.
Erekle Street and its immediate environs, are at the heart of the old town. All pedestrainised, the narrow streets are crowded with pavement cafes and bars and shisha places. Definitely the place to be of an evening. It is in this area that you will find the Peace Bridge, an amazing footbridge over the Mtkvari river. It is an elegant amalgam of steel and glass and it truly shines at night. Unfortunately, the fact that it looks something like a sanitary towel has led to it being given a new, unofficial name – the Always Bridge.
In a remarkable stroke of luck, towards the end of my evening strolling the streets of the old town, I stopped off for a beer in a small bar overlooking Sioni Church, a 14th Century building of some note. As I settled into my book, there was a sudden eruption of noise – cheering and clapping – from the church and the bells started to ring. I checked my watch – just after midnight on Easter Sunday. Much like the Greek Orthodox Easter celebrations that I had witnessed as a small child in the early 80s, at midnight, the priest shouts Christ has risen! and the celebrations begin. A pure fluke, but a very serendipitous one.
The Georgian country tour I had arranged seemed quite ambitious in its scope. We would travel all the way across the country, stopping at famous churches, a Kakheti vinyard (Georgia is widely held to be the birthplace of wine making), the city of Gori to visit Stalin’s birthplace museum, the cave city of Uplistsikhe, the Caucasus mountains and various other attractions. Actually, as it turned out, Georgia (despite having 6 of the 7 recognised geographical countryside types) is a very compact country, and our guide, both friendly and very knowledgeable, was able to show us just what an incredible country Georgia is.
The high point of the trip, for me, was definitely Gori. As both a dedicated dark tourist, and something of a history geek, getting to see Stalin’s birthplace was something else. The first thing that the guide told us completely blew me away. Stalin’s birthplace is there – a small hut with his father’s shoemaker’s workshop above the family quarters. It is now protected by a new, external roof, but it is possible to approach the building and look inside. So far so good. However, having his birthplace preserved was not good enough for Stalin. He also ordered Gori to be demolished and rebuilt three miles to the west in order to make the house in which he was born stand at the very centre of the city. In the grounds of the attached museum is, what I am led to believe is the only statue of Stalin still standing anywhere in the former Soviet Union. And thus, one would guess, possibly the only statue of Stalin still standing anywhere in the world.
The museum itself (guided tour only, no photos allowed) is a large, gloomy building full of memorabilia of Stalin’s life. The amazing thing here was that the lugubrious and thoroughly-depressed-seeming guide did not once mention anything negative about the man. Quite a feat even for the most ardent of Stalin’s admirers. Also, in the grounds of the museum, you get to board the heavily armoured railway carriage that Stalin used to travel wherever possible, given that he did not like to fly. Overall, it would be hard to recommend visiting Georgia and not going to Gori. If you have the time, take the trip!
Speaking of railway carriages, the tour guide dropped me and my travel buddy at Tbilisi station at about 6pm, ready for our overnight train to Yerevan in Armenia. I must admit, there is something about transport – about trains and ships and planes, that brings out the kid in me. I had never been on a sleeper train before and I was almost pathetically excited. The overnight train from Tbilisi to Yerevan runs every second day, leaving at 8.20pm and arriving just before seven the next morning. There are three classes of carriage – open sleeper (£9; €11.50; $12.80), second class four berth compartments (£14.25; €18.40; $20.25) and first class two berth compartments (£20.50; €26.50; $29.50). Needless to say, we booked a two berth. In fact, were I travelling alone, at those prices, I would have bought two tickets just to get a first class compartment to myelf.
Tbilisi station is not in the most salubrious part of town. I had read that there would be no catering on the train, so I set out, alone, to try and change my remaining Georgian money to Armenian Drams and to find some food. It was a little bit scary – it was dark, the streets were not well lit and there seemed to be many drunks with collectively few teeth. It took a while to find any kind of open shops, but (although the money changing was unsuccessful – despite the wealth of money-changers in the region of the station, none had any Drams), I managed to amass a veritable feast of stale-ish bread, questionable crisps, chocolate and assorted fizzy drinks. Not the healthiest of evening meals, but needs must and all that.
The sleeper carriages were old. Former Soviet rolling stock, the compartment was dark and dusty. And incredibly comfortable. I am something of an insomniac at the best of times, so wasn’t really expecting to sleep. However, a combination of the gentle rocking motion of the train and the deeply sprung and well upholstered bench-beds, and the next thing I knew, I was startled awake into a mini-flurry of breadcrumbs, chocolate wrappers and crip packets by a taking-no-shit hammering at the compartment door. 11.30 pm: we had reached the border. A terrifyingly stern looking guard, the sort whose very stare fills you with a formless guilt and a need to apologise without knowing for what, took our passports and disappeared. Having been a transit passenger at nearby(ish) Baku airport several times before, I didn’t panic at this as much as I might otherwise have. Par for the course in this part of the world, I thought. And I suppose I was right – thirty or so minutes later, the same guard returned the passports. A couple of miles further down the line we stopped again. This time the stern-faced guard in the impossibly resplendent dress uniform was Armenian, and took our passports for the purpose of entry, rather than exit. Eventually, we were back on our way, and having lucked into falling asleep before (the day’s travel round Georgia must have worn me out, I figured), I resigned myself to a further seven or so hours of wakefulness. The next thing I knew, I woke up as the train slowed into Yerevan. One of the best nights’ sleep I have ever had!
Even at 7 am in the cold, Spring drizzle, Yerevan was noticeably more wealthy a city than Tbilisi. The ATMs at the station furnished me with sufficient Drams to be going on with and the metro (avoid the unlicensed station taxis!) into the centre was clean, cheap and easy to use. My hotel was basic, but inexpensive by Armenian standards (ie double what I had paid in Tbilisi), clean and a stone’s throw from the impressive Republic Square. Again, the hotel managed to be friendly without being what I would consider intrusive, and again I booked a day-tour of the country through the owner.
The day tour took in Vokhchaberd, a village with fantastic views of Mount Ararat, a mountain sacred to the Armenians but annexed by Turkey (so unlike them!) in 1920, and Garni, a temple built to the pagan god Mithra in the first century CE. The highlight of the tour, for me, was the final stop at the medieval Geghard monastery. The monastery itself is interesting enough, partly built into the cliff at whose foot it stands. But what really blew me away was the the cave behind the monastery. Specifically, the four-person choir that was singing liturgical music therein. The acoustics of the cave and the beauty of the music were truly breathtaking. I was able to capture a small excerpt of the singing on my phone’s voice memo recorder, but nothing can do justice to actually experiencing such a thing.
Yerevan itself was also worthy of a couple of days’ exploration. It is a lot more westernised and less post-Soviet than Tbilisi, and there is plenty to see and do. The first place I chose to visit was the Yerevan Brandy Company distillery, where Ararat brand brandy is produced. Though clearly not as famous as French brandy, Armenian brandy is every bit its equal. It has won all sorts of awards down the years and gained all sorts of admirers, including Agatha Christie and Frank Sinatra. Winston Churchill would drink no other sort of brandy, and after the war, Stalin ensured that the erstwhile British politician received a lifetime’s supply. The tour of the brandy factory, which lies an easy walk (apart from having to cross the crazy ring road) from the city centre is on of the definite must-dos if visiting Yerevan.
The city is also incredibly pleasant just to walk around. The streets are broad, and often tree lined and there is a wide variety of places to stop for coffee, beer or food. The Jazzve chain of coffeeshops can be found all over the city and offer good coffee and reasonably priced food. Also worthy of a mention is the wonderful Green Bean cafe – the organic coffee and the cakes make this place definitely worth seeking out. The opera house stands at the centre of a park full of semi-outdoor cafes, and is the start point of the Cascades – an ascending set of steps with museums, sculptures and assorted other diversions. The view from the top is wonderful. There are, purportedly, lifts and escalators to assist with the climb, but none seemed to be working that particular day.
The opera house was also the starting point for the real reason I had wanted to visit Yerevan at this specific time. On the evening of 24th April, I was able to participate in the Armenian genocide memorial march. Beginning with some rabble-rousing speeches (naturally in Armenian), and the ritual burning of the Turkish flag, the parade then wound sombrely through the streets of the capital, ending up at the Armenian Genocide Memorial just outside the city. Very moving. And in this day and age I am still shocked and outraged (though not at all surprised) that Turkey refuse to even acknowledge the genocide, let alone apologise for it. Bastards.
My only regret about the visit to Georgia and Armenia is that I didn’t have more time to see more of both of the countries. I will definitely be going back. Even if just for another go on the sleeper train…