Sunday, May 4, 2014

Return to Warsaw

My flight to Warsaw landed a bit late, at 7am. I flew through security and passport control and hopped the train to the city centre. Unlike my last layover in Warsaw, this time it was not cold and raining, but a beautiful, blue skied, sunny day. Due to this change in the weather i decided to re-walk the path from the train station up Nowy Swiat to and around the old city. Everything looked so much more beautitful in the sunshine, all of the churches and, narrow, decorative streets looked so much more colourful.

So i walked that route again, although a bit quicker than i did a week ago. I didn't venture inside any churches in the old city this time, but the streets themselves were so much more lively, with throngs of people walking, sightseeing, and lunching, buskers, and crowds and crowds of soldiers gathering and preparing for some event. The streets were lined with flags, as were the churches and public buildings. I don't know if it is a holiday or what, but the atmosphere was festive.

Finishing my route through the old city, i got on a tram headed across the bridge, past the zoo, and to the Praga district. 

The Praga district is one of the only parts of the city that is fairly intact from before the war. It is truly the old city, with aging brick buildings, old seedy market places and wonderful graffiti, as well as an abandoned vodka factory (which is, it appears, about to be renovated into flats and offices). I also stopped by one very crowded orthodox cathedral and watched a bit of the sunday mass, with its singing (admittedly not as beautiful as that in the Georgian churches). It was a very different walk than on the other side of the river and far less touristy. Unfortunately, it was so early that very few things were open, but it was still a lovely walk.

I probably meandered a bit longer than i should have before heading back. I got back on the tram and to the old city about two hours before my flight, but rather than heading back to the airport immediately, i opted for one plate of piergoies on the old town square, before hailing a cab back to the airport.

As i write this, i am somewhere over Sweden. It has been a wonderful trip. Georgia exceeded my expectations (seriously, it's great, i don't know why more people don't go there) and My two short visits to Warsaw made me look forward to visiting Poland properly one day.

Alas, back to reality...and time to start planning the next trip.

Marionettes & Vodka: the final day in Tbilisi

As i write this i am on a flight from Tbilisi to Warsaw, somewhere between the middle of the night and early the next morning. Yesterday/today was my final day in Georgia. There wasn't too much more in Tbilisi i wanted to do, but the top of my list for that day was a trip to Mtatsminda Park. Mtatsminda Park is or was a soviet era amusement park in top of a mountain overlooking Tbilisi. Apparently it was the third most popular amusement park in the soviet union. With am endorsement like that, how could i resist? (It has since been updated, although i believe some of the attractions are original.)

To reach the park the is a funicular a short but steep walk from Liberty Square. The funicular steeply and swiftly lifts you up the mountain, past a monastery, to the top. The views are excellent, looking out over the city and also looking up at the TV tower, which is, just that, a giant antenna like tower on top of the mountain, which at night is lit up with flashing orange lights. 

The amusement park is small, but lovely, set in an actual park. I arrived about an hour before the rides opened, but it was still possible to walk through the park, when i took photos of the rides being set up.

The park itself is clearly not North American, as evidenced by these rather Georgian looking mice.

I waited first to ride the roller coaster, which i ultimately did three times. It is a good coaster, with a couple of sharp loops, but it is very short. I was the first one in line and was only one of three people riding. 

After that i went to the "ghost house" - one of those haunted houses where you ride through in carts on rails past all manner of animatronic horrors. In that respect it was pretty standard, but, honestly, it was a bit scary, only because i was the only person on the ride and good chunks of it are in the pitch blackness (and anyone who knows me knows i am afraid of the dark). And the ride was very long. I had a lot of time to concoct a horror movie scenario in which a lone traveler rides solo through a soviet amusement park haunted house, only to be detained in some subterranean "Hostel" or "Saw" like scenario. But none of that happened. On the whole, it was a great ride and succeeded in making me uneasy, if only for my overactive imagination.

After that i rode the giant ferris wheel (super boring, but great views), and a really fun octopus, spinny ride, on which it was just me and two young boys. I then walked through a forested area that was filled with animatronic dinosaurs that 'came to life' as you walked by them. I enjoyed that way too much.

The park started to get busier as i left, but while i was there it was quiet and i felt like i had it to myself.

After descending via the funicular i had some more eggplant with walnuts and some potato kinkhali, before doing a bit of looking in the gift and souvenir shops, including the comically named "Georgian Patriarchy Shop" and picking up some snacks from women selling on the street.

I spent the rest of the afternoon visiting cafes and hanging out at the hostel, chatting with the other guests, all of whom have been extremely pleasant.

In the evening i went to the Gabriadze Marionette Theatre. This had been on my list since before i left Canada. The theatre (located below that crooked clock tower from a previous post), does various shows entirely with marionettes and other types of puppets. The shows are in Georgian with English subtitles and all seem to be dramatic tales drawing on Georgian history.  I saw "Autumn of my Springtime" which was s tale of love, death, poverty, and justice in post war Georgia. It was so beautiful. The only thing i can compare it to is a show by The Old Trouts, for those who are familiar with that Canadian puppet troupe. The show was sold out days in advance and i am very happy that i had a ticket. 

It was my final night in Tibilisi, so i was not keen to retire to the hostel. I headed off to a place i had heard about but not yet visited. There is an entirely unremarkable looking Lebanese restaurant (i won't say where, only because i think others should have to find it themselves or be told by a local where it is). Entering the restaurant, walk confidently to the back to the kitchen. There is a dark flight of roughly hewn stone stairs heading two flights down. At the bottom you are hit with a blast of unfamiliar rock music and cigarette smoke and the room opens up into a cavernous space with low, arched, brick ceilings, brick walls, lit by green lights. There is a bar and the place is filled with young Georgians, looking like some combination of hipster, grunge, and metal, drinking and smoking. It is so cool, like something out of a movie i haven't yet seen. I made my way to the bar and ordered vodka (vodka is, by the way, cheaper than tea and coffee here). I didn't socialize much, aside from getting drawn into some dispute over cards, but i had a great time smoking and observing.

After that i hit one more spot, "Bauhaus" which is a cafe/bar in the old city, in one of the super grungy backstreets next to a lot that looks like it was bombed, but featuring some nifty graffiti. The place is spare, arty, and cool. There were a few groups of people in there are they were projecting silent films on the wall. I had another vodka and a cigar before meandering back to the hostel. I really can't get enough of wandering in this city - every time i turn down a new street i discover new graffiti or beautiful old buildings, churches, cafes...always something good and interesting.

Back at the hostel, i hung out for a bit, chatting, before getting about two hours sleep and leaving for the airport.
Today i have a short visit to Warsaw and then, reluctantly, home.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Kazbegi: Tsminda Sameba Church

Yesterday morning i awoke in the bed at my home stay in Kazbegi. Lela had prepared a large breakfast, which i enjoyed until my car arrived to take me up the mountain. 

Kazbegi is dominated and famous for the Tsminda Sameba Church, which sits alone atop a mountain overlooking the town. This is not only the most famous image for Kazbegi, but really one of the most famous images for Georgia, that small church on top of a mountain, ringed by green valley and snowy peaks. 

There are two ways up the mountain to the church (which sits at 2200 meters): hike or drive. Originally, based on reading the guidebooks, i planned to hike, but then when i saw how bloody high it is and realized how muddy everything was from yesterday's rain, i opted for a car, a decision i ultimately felt good about. My driver, who spoke no english, picked me up in his old Lada Niva and we made our ascent. First we passed through a charming village of cottages, cows, and a couple small cemeteries, then we really began to climb. 

The road is a narrow, unpaved adventure of boulders, muddy crevasses, hills, and giant holes, and everything was slick with mud. We bounced and jerked up the mountain. The driver wouldn't let me wear a seatbelt and laughed on the way up saying more than once "Georgian Autobahn".

At the top the road gives way to a green plateau, with a small hill sitting at the edge of a cliff. The 14th century church is on top of the mountain. The church is pretty, small and simple, with religious paintings, candles, and incense - not too different from some of the other churches i have seen on this trip. What makes it extraordinary is the setting.

The views are stunning and that is even with the low lying cloud that was there the day i visited. The village sits in the valley below and all around are gentle green valleys which turn, sharply into very high, slow and glacier topped peaks. I'm sure that those who hiked to the top felt pretty pleased with themselves, but as i escaped the bracing cold in the car and drove down comfortably (more or less), i felt pretty pleased myself.

After that i walked up to the Rooms Hotel, which is a large, modern hotel built sort of above the village and across it from the church. The hotel is really amazing. It has this long patio across the front which gives you a perfect view of the village and mountain and then inside, all along the front is a massive series of windows and a long, super beautifully decorated lounge, with lots of open bookcases and cozy groupings of leather sofas and chairs. The place is big and modern, but the building itself is really well designed so it doesn't stand out or detract from the setting.

I sat in there for an hour or two and had tea and a cigar and some incredible wild mushroom soup before walking back into the village to catch a marshrutka back to Tibilisi. On the way, i way i was distracted by three large pigs which were running the streets, clearly up to no good.

The ride back was nice, even if the driver did drive perilously fast. The sun was shining and i snapped a few pictures from the moving vehicle, although a lot of the really interesting stuff (tiny villages with crumbly buildings featuring ancient, colorful mosaics, people selling knitted items in the middle of nowhere by the roadside, and fields of snow), i wasn't able to get.

The drive took about 3 hours and dropped me off by the market, which i again poked around in for a bit before taking the metro back to Liberty Square and then walking to the old city.

Last night was totally mellow. I just walked around, ate some ice cream, and looked for a place to eat, until i decided i was too tired to do anything but sleep.

Today is my last day in Tbilisi and there are still a couple more things i want to see before i leave tomorrow morning. But first, a coffee and breakfast cigar.

Kazbegi and the Georgian Military Highway

My plan all along was to do a trip to the Kazbegi region of Georgia. This is a high, mountainous region just south of the Russian border, accessible from Tbilisi only by the infamous Georgian Military Highway. Kazbegi (and it's main destination, the picturesque village of Stepantsminda) is stunning and the highway is known for being one of the world's more scenic and dangerous drives. 

You can take a marshrutka from Tbilisi for 10 lari (about $6) for the 3 hour drive, which is what i had planned go do, but then one of the guys from the hostel and i talked about hiring a car to take us there so we could stop and take photos along the way. He wanted to go up for the day and i planned to spend the night. This morning however he was sound asleep following what apparently was an all night Georgian supra (feast and marathon eating and drinking event filled with numerous toasts) but i still wanted to go and was rather taken with the idea of taking a car, so i went by myself with Nik (a young student who works at the hostel), who borrowed his dad's 1980s Renault to drive me up there. I paid him 150 lari for the trip and the. For him it was about 5-6 hours of driving, so i thought the price was fair.

Taking a car turned out to be terrific. We were able to stop along the way to visit churches and stop so i could photograph the stunning scenery and flocks of sheep. The skies were blue and the weather was warm as we left Tbilisi. I thought, "i don't see what the beg deal is about this Georgian Military Highway being dangerous." 

Of course, as we climbed higher into the mountains, the road turned into a series of hairpin turns on the narrow two-lane, clinging to the side of the steep mountain sides...and then it clouded over, began to rain and thunder and then and we passed by large patches of ice, it began to snow. Not the best conditions for driving, as one multi car accident we passed demonstrated, complete with an overturned semi.

As we finally reached Stepantsminda, the snow gave way to rain. Wet and foggy though it was, the town was beautiful: a proper mountain village in the middle of glacier capped mountains, with cattle and sheep roaming the streets like dogs. 

About 2500 people live here and there isn't much. A couple hostels, a couple restaurants, a few tiny markets selling bread, vodka, dairy, and sweets, farmland, and forrest. The reason people come here is for the hiking - and mostly to hike up to the Tsmind Sameba Church, although it is possible to hike up to the glaciers, which are not far away.

It was cold and wet when we arrived so rather than leaving me to my own devices, Nik, rolled down his window and asked a stern and study looking man if he knew of a place i could stay. The man apparently said i could stay with him and his wife, because soon i was in their small, cozy home. The couple- Lela and Rezo - speak only Georgian and Russian so we are relying on my very limited Russian and a lot of sign language. Their house is modest and cozy, warmed with a wood burning stove in the living room. It appears that i am taking their room and they are sleeping in the living room. I am paying them about the equivalent of $15 dollars for the night and breakfast. There is no internet, of course - even the electricity is intermittent, but i shall write this now on my ipad and post it at the next opportunity.

After i settled in at their place, i went walking through the town to nowhere in  particular, though i did stop in at the tiny museum which had cows grazing out front.

I ended up at a crowded restaurant on the main square and ended up eating with four travellers from Poland, who were very friendly and with whom i shared my first taste of 'cha cha' or Georgian vodka, more similar to a grappa than vodka. It doesn't go down smoothly and once swallowed it makes its presence felt. It was good to try, but i don't think i'll be making a habit of it.

After sitting by the stove reading for a while i went to bed early, for a bit of blogging before bed. Tomorrow morning i have a car scheduled to take me up the mountain to the church after church.

A very cozy end to a very good day.