Armenia: First Christian Nation and the “Country of Stones.”

I grew up in former USSR which consisted of fifteen republics with Russia being by far the largest. By the time Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, I have traveled to all of these republics – presently independent states – except for one: Armenia. It is late August of 2021 and it is time to finally discover Armenia. Granted, not everyone knows where the Republic of Armenia (official name) is situated. Here it is:

Armenia is a small (smaller than Belgium, but bigger than Israel) landlocked country situated in the mountainous  Caucasus region.  As a nation, Armenia has an ancient heritage. The first Armenian state (Urartu) was established in 860 BC and the Kingdom of Armenia reached its height in the 1st century BC. Armenians are proud to be the first state in the world which adopted Christianity as official national religion in 301 AC (ten years before Christianity was granted “toleration” status in the Roman Empire). The country is bordered by Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran and Georgia.

Except, for the latter, Armenia had historically difficult relations with its neighbors. Between 16th and 19th centuries, the Armenian homelands were under interchangeable rules of the Ottoman (think “Turkey”) and Persian (think “Iran”) empires. Both were Islamic nations and this did not make easy the fate of the deeply Christian Armenian people. During World War I, more than one million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were systematically massacred in what has become known as Armenian genocide. In the late 1980s, a bloody conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan (then still being part of the same country, the USSR) began over  Nagorno-Karabakh (also known as “Artsakh”). It is an autonomous district which was recognized as part of Azerbaijan in ex-USSR, but populated mostly by ethnic Armenians. Armenia was able to secure its control over Nagorno-Karabakh until September 2020, when Turkey-trained Azerbaijanian troops retook most of Nagorno-Karabakh resulting in mass-exodus of Armenians living there. Here is a good short documentary about the roots of the war and human tragedy surrounding the fight over Nagorno-Karabakh.

If you would ask someone who grew up in ex-USSR (like me), “What Armenia is known for?”, besides many archeological sites and historical monuments associated with country’s Christian heritage, different people would tell you quite different things. Some would praise traditional Armenian hospitality which no visitor can “escape.” Some would describe Armenians as very intelligent and talented people: indeed, the country produced plenty of well-known musicians, mathematicians and chess-players. Yet, some would think first of all about famous Armenian Cognac (exported abroad as “Armenian Brandy,” but sold internally as “Armenian Cognac”). And anyone who actually visited Armenia would be captivated by the rugged beauty (hence, nick-name the “country of stones”) of this semiarid and mountainous country (average elevation is 5,900 feet/1,800 meters) with lake Sevan being its most precious natural pearl. Here are couple of Armenian landscapes painted by Martiros Saryan

And so, in late August 2021, I flew together with my Russian friends Vladimir and Elena from Moscow to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia (the flight is less than three hours). By the way, neither Americans nor Russians need a visa to travel to Armenia. And both nations have a very positive public image, and during our entire journey we felt truly welcomed. Partially, this is because of a huge Armenian diaspora in both Russia and the USA – i.e. ethnic Armenians living in these two countries. Overall, roughly 8 millions Armenians live outside Armenia – a number greatly exceeding less than 3 million population of country itself.

Upon arrival, we did not stay in Yerevan, but picked up the car and drove to our first destination, a scenic village called Oshakan. The main “official” site there is St. Mesrop Mashtots Church with the grave of St. Mesrop. Mesrop Mashtots was an early medieval Armenian linguist, composer, and theologian who is venerated as a saint in both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. He is best known for inventing the Armenian alphabet in c. 405 AD. I need confess, however, that our first destination in Oshakan was different: we went to visit Voskevaz winery or more precisely Chateau Voskevaz

Indeed, Vosevaz winery does look as a chateau, but…sort of a Disneyland-style

Besides fun architecture and high ratings of their wines on Google maps, I was curious to see an interesting technology used at Voskevaz for wine production – the old “karases” that were made in the 19th century. Karas, a traditional vessel for wine fermentation and aging, was used in Armenia from ancient times. 

These 19th century karases are used at Voskevaz winery for fermentation and aging.

I arranged the visit to Voskevaz in advance and we were met and given grand-tour by the chief winemaker: Ray Chevond Petrosyan.

Myself and Ray Petrosyan, the winemaker at Voskevaz winery

As it turned out, Ray studied enology in Germany. We switched to German language (I studied and worked there) and talked about our favorite wine areas in Germany. This has made us “instant friends” and, sure enough, the formal wine-tasting evolved into “let’s open this and that bottle.” Honestly, I was impressed both with the variety of choices and overall quality of Voskevaz wines. My absolute favorite was very aromatic dry white wine called Urzana which was made out of Muscat grapes.

Dry Muscat produced by Voskevaz

It was late, when we returned to our B&B, but the evening was warm: we sat at the table under the tree and enjoyed one (or two) more glasses of wine with my friend Vladimir.

Vladimir (left) and myself at Hatsekats B&B

The place where we stayed this night was called Bed and Breakfast Hatsekats and it was an excellent choice. For about $50, we had a big, nicely restored and decorated traditional house (with all modern amenities) which was surrounded by a fruit garden. Our hosts encouraged us to “help yourself” with the fruits: the peaches, oranges and pomegranates were in season and abundant.

The patio and garden of Hatsekats offered nice view of the surrounding village.

Garden at B&B Hatsekats

Our hosts, Armen and Svetlana, prepared generous – truly gargantuan – breakfast and “tempted” us to stay longer by offering possible guide services and excursions to the nearby sights. But, unfortunately, we need to leave and head to the next destination. It was time to say “Good bye, Hatsekats!”

Our host, Svetlana, in the middle: between me and Vladimir

The next destination was a place which is a “must visit” for anyone traveling in Armenia: the ancient Geghard Monastery. It is situated at the end of a narrow Azat River gorge and is partially carved out of the rocky mountainside. Geghard Monastery is on a UNESCO World Heritage list and there are many reasons for this. The monastery was founded at the beginning of 4th century by St. Gregory Illuminator, the patron saint of Armenia, the founder of the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church, and, most importantly, the person who converted the country to Christianity in 301 AD. The impressive monastic complex (several chapels, tombs, walls, towers, gardens) has been continously built between the 4th and 13th centuries. It is widely regarded as finest example of Armenian medieval architecture. The monastery is surrounded by spectacular towering cliffs. Some of its churches are entirely dug out of the rocks, others are inside of the caves, while others are elaborate stand-alone structures.

Geghard Monastery
Geghard Monastery
Geghard Monastery

According to the legend, St. Gregory founded the monastery  at the site of a sacred spring in a cave. And, indeed, this spring is still intact and can be seen inside one of the monastery’s churches.

Holy Spring around which Geghard Monastery was being built

Geghard is also famous because of the many sacred relics that it housed. The most celebrated of these is the spear which had wounded Christ on the Cross and was allegedly brought to the monastery by the Apostle Thaddeus. This gave the monastery its full name, Geghardavank which means “the Monastery of the Spear.” We arrived at the monastery on Sunday morning and it was perfect timing to join the traditional, most important Orthodox worship service, called Liturgy, which was accompanied by a beautiful choral singing.

After few hours at Geghard, we were hungry. Miraculously, as we drove back through the winding canyon, a make-shift roadside bakery emerged. In the huge clay-oven, two women baked “lavash” – the paper-thin traditional Armenian bread. Needless to say that we stopped, bought and enjoyed this pipingly-hot delicacy.

Roadside bakery

Most people coming to Geghard combine this trip with a visit to the nearby town of Garni. Why? Because of the Temple of Garni – the only remaining Greco-Roman monument and as such the symbol of pre-Christian Armenia. The Temple of Garni was built in the first century AD and was dedicated to the God of the Sun, Mihr.

Pre-Christian temple of Garni

It is not clear, how Garni survived Christian epoch when all pagan structures were destroyed. The most common theory is that the temple was converted into a royal summer house of the sister of King Tiridates III. I personally would support this theory, because the location of the temple is spectacular: it sits at the edge of a triangular cliff which overlooks the ravine of the Azat River and the Gegham mountains.

Pre-Christian temple of Garni

In previous travel stories (blogs about Yukatan in Mexico and Eastern Sierras in California), I wrote about my love for the natural hot springs. Armenia is actually a good destination for various healing mineral waters with mountain resort town of Jermuk being the most known and popular destination. But we wanted to explore something more out of the beaten bath and opted for Hankavan Thermal Baths situated about 80 km / 65 miles North of Armenian capital Yerevan. It is an area with several hot springs – all around Hankavan village. Our choice was Nairi Spa Resort – a modern hotel surrounded by forest and featuring nicely kept grounds and some interesting sculptures.

We did not stay overnight, but took a long walk on hotel’s trails and then booked for couple hours a private room with a huge mineral bath. The water was hot and relaxing, and – after leaving Nairi Spa Resort – we felt that it was time to head for our booked overnight accommodations.

Private room with mineral bath in Nairi Spa Resort

As it turned out, however, the day was not finished yet. Driving near the town of Meghradzor, we noticed a sign for a trail to Tezharuyk Monastery. After hiking about one mile up the slope we came to the place which we instantly liked: the remnants of gorgeous basilica were surrounded by the nature and some scattered sculptures. The sense of serenity was overwhelming and it was clear that very people ever come here.

Tezharuyk Monastery
Tezharuyk Monastery

We descended back to the road by the time of sunset, and stayed here a bit longer enjoying the quietness and some good views with the town of Meghradzor in the distance.

The town of Meghradzor

Tsaghkadzor – the place where we spent this night – is actually a very popular holiday destination in Armenia. Its name literally means valley of flowers or flower canyon in Armenian and this is for a good reason: situated on the southeastern slope of Mount Teghenis, at a height of 1,841 meters / 5,500 feet above above sea level, the town is surrounded by Alpine meadows. There are a few nearby attractions, but by far most important is Tsaghkadzor ski resort which is located just above the town. It was fully modernized about ten years ago, when all Soviet-era structures were replaced by new equipment. Today, three lifts take skiers from the foot of the mountain at a height of 1,969 meters / 6,000 feet to the top of the mountain at 2,819 meters / 8,500 feet.

Tsaghkadzor

Tsaghkadzor has plenty of tourist accommodations for all tastes and budgets and – although we did not plan to stay long – it was a logical choice to spend the night. Our family-run B&B was called Guest House Arsan. It does not have a website or even a Face Book page, but you can find it on Google maps or booking.com. In fact, I do not think that they need any additional advertisement, because most people who once stayed there keep returning year after year. Arsan belongs to the family of Oganes Mkrtchjan, who used to be a deputy mayor of Tsaghkadzor. Needless to say, that he knows everyone in the town and everything about the area. The rooms were big and comfortable, the price ridiculously low (something like $40 including breakfast), but the biggest highlight of this Guest House were the hosts themselves: the cheerful story-teller Oganes and his super-welcoming wife, Svetlana. We asked in advance Oganes and Svetlana to prepare “something traditional” for the dinner and this was table awaiting us.

Our home-made dinner at Guest House Arsan

We stayed at dinner much longer and drank much more excellent Armenian wine than planned, but we were in no hurry and enjoyed the company of Oganes and Svetlana. Next morning, Oganes walked us around and shared his plans for expansion of his already quite flourishing business. But, eventually, it was time to leave: thank you, Oganes and Svetlana!

From left to right: Svetlana and Oganes Mkrtchjan, the owners of Arsan Guest House, myself and Vladimir.

The plan for this day was to explore the Western coast of lake Sevan which is the largest lake in Armenia and one of the largest high-altitude alpine lakes in Eurasia: it is situated at 1,900 meters / 6,235 feet above sea level. The total surface area of its basin is about 5,000 km2 (1,900 square miles), which makes up 16 of Armenia’s territory. But numbers and data aside, Sevan is, first of all, an iconic and almost sacred place for every Armenian – the “jewel” of Armenia.

Lake Sevan

For several reasons, its Western coast is much more developed and “dotted” with restaurants and hotels (some very attractive, some fairly ugly), whereas Sevan’s Eastern part remains relatively untouched. We planned to see both, but today focused on more touristy area. The most important cultural monument and popular destination here is the Sevanavank monastery. It is located on the peninsula, which was until the mid-20th century an island. Yes, this is right: initially the monastery was built at the southern shore of a small island, but after heavy usage of Sevan for irrigation, the water level fell about 20 meters, and the island evolved into a peninsula. Founded in 9th century, besides very scenic location, Sevanavank monastery was known for its strict rules as it was mainly intended for those monks who – allegedly – had somehow sinned.

Sevanavank Monastery

Granted, it is a beautiful and nicely restored monastic complex, but it is also full of tourists which makes it more difficult to relax and enjoy. However, you could walk just a few hundred meters to the end of the peninsula and get the feeling that the place belongs to you only.

Lake Sevan and Sevanavank Monastery

Later in the day, we visited Hayravank monastery which is also located on the coast of Sevan, about 30 km / 20 miles to the South of Sevanavank. Hayravank sits on the rocky cliff and has truly commanding view.

Approaching Hayravank Monastery

I personally liked Hayravank much more than Sevanavank: it felt serene and pristine.

Hayravank Monastery

Hayravank is also a good destination for people who want to explore the so-called khachkars. Known also as Armenian cross-stones, khachkars are carved, memorial stellas bearing a cross combined with some additional motifs such as rosettes, interlaces, flowers. Hayravank is surrounded by numerous khachkars and gravestones that are part of a small cemetery.

Khachkars surround Hayravank monastery

My fellow travelers, Vladimir and Elena, lingered somewhat longer inside the monastery’s church, and I began playing with Google maps exploring the nearby area. Suddenly, something interesting popped up: the sign on Google maps said “Mikayelyan Farm Factory.” The associated picture displayed a cellar full of heads of cheeses. All of us are cheese-lowers, and we drove to the village of Gavar where the farm was located. Long story short, a big extended family from the capital Yerevan moved here in 2012, bought properties, and began production of fine cheeses. Most of them (made of cow and goat milk) are well aged (at least, 4 months) and some are fermented with added brandy, grape leaves, cinnamon, or wine. The selection is impressive (about 10 kinds) and the entire set-up for wine-and-cheese tasting is enjoyable.

We stayed at Mikayelyan’s for a while, sampled their entire selection, and ended up buying plenty of cheeses. And then we were back on the the road heading for the resort town of Dilijan in Northern Armenia where we planned to stay the following two nights. There are many reasons to visit Dilijan. Surrounded by forest and being within the Dilijan National Park, this area is often nicknamed the Armenian Switzerland or Little Switzerland. The narrow streets of the Old town feature well restored traditional Armenian architecture. Because of the quality of mountain air, natural beauty and slow pace of life, numerous Armenian artists, composers, and filmmakers moved here from busy Yerevan. Plus, several interesting ancient monasteries are also located within short distance from Dilijan. In short, in Dilijan, you can combine hiking in the nature, exploring traditional Armenian, and visits to many historical sites. We stayed in B&B right in the middle of Old town on Myasnikyan Street.

Myasnikyan Street in the heart of Old Dilijan

There is a story about the origins of the name, “Dilijan.” According to legend, the town is named after a shepherd called Dili. He was in love with his master’s daughter, but the father was against this union and ordered to kill the shepherd. For many days, the sorrowful mother of Dili was mourning and looking for her only son. And she was desperately crying, “Dili jan, Dili jan .. ” (“Jan” is an Armenian term added to the name of a friend or family member). Hence, the area has become known under this name. Our B&B was appropriately called “Old Dili” and it looked like this:

B&B “Old Dili”

My room was as huge as soccer field and had plenty of sunlight.

Yet, while being home, I preferred to sit outside, on a terrace and in a spacious stone gazebo.

Gazebo with a view at B&B Old Dili

The thing was that this gazebo offered a truly commanding view of the modern (lower) part of the town.

Lower, modern part of Dilijan

Dilijan has a vibrant restaurant scene. On the first night we went to the place called Kchuch which is known for its dishes prepared in a wood-fired brick oven. “Kchuch” means in Armenain “clay pot,” and many dishes in this restaurant are cooked in clay pots. I had for dinner a pizza with locally harvested wild mushrooms, while my friend Vladimir opted for lamb slowly prepared in a honey sauce and served in a “kchuch.”

The next day, I decided to combine hiking in the nature with visits to some historical sites. And this can be done easily in Dilijan. Two medieval monasteries, Matosavank and Jukhtakvank, are located in scenic forest settings and yet close to Dilijan. The trailheads to both begin from the same parking area and it takes only about 10 min. by car from Dilijan to come here. I first walked about one hour through the forest to Matosavank, a small 13th century monastery. Nobody was there, when I arrived and it was good time to stretch under the son on the monastery’s roof covered with soft moss.

Matosavank Monastery near Dilijan

Although the monastery looks from the outside really like “ruins,” its interior is amazingly well preserved.

Matosvank Monastery
Matosvank Monastery

And then I heard some voices from the outside: a group of pilgrims led by a village priest came to the monastery.

Pilgrims at Matosvank Monastery

As it turned out, they were planning not simply visit, but also have a worship service in the church. The ladies began cleaning and preparing. By the time I left, the makeshift altar was assembled and ready.

I returned to the parking area and hiked (just about 30 min.) to the second monastery: Jukhtakvank. What is left of this monastery are two churches. The bigger one is called St. Grigor.

St. Grigor Church at Jukhtakvank Monastery

The name of the smaller church is St. Astvatsatsin.

St. Astvatsatsin.Church at Jukhtakvank Monastery

I lit the candle and said my prayers inside of St. Astvatsatin Church.

In afternoon, I joined my fellow travelers, Vladimir and Elena, and we all felt like having some fun. Well, there is a good place for doing this near Dilijan: lake Parz. It is a small lake in the mountains which offers cafes, boat rentals, etc. There is also a hiking trail connecting Dilijan with lake Parz, but we simply drove there.

Lake Parz

But most importantly, lake Parz has a loooooong zip line and it is definitely worth of $20 to take the ride.

Taking ride on zipline at Lake Parz

The main official attraction near Dilijan is a huge monastic complex called Haghartsin, and by the end of day we drove there. Its name translates as “soaring eagle.” The legend says that by the time of monastery’s dedication, an eagle was soaring over the dome: “Hagh” means playing/soaring and “arts” refers to an eagle. Hagartsin was continuously built between 10th and 13th centuries. It has three churches: St. Astvatsatsin, St. Gregory, and St. Stepanos. Besides churches, Khachkars (Armenian cross-stones) are dispersed trough the monastery’s lands. Regardless of monastery’s historical and architectural importance, for me, the major attraction was its location: a gorgeous combination of the ivory color of buildings which are in perfect contrast with the surrounding green woods.

Haghartsin Monastery
Haghartsin Monastery

Hagartsin is nicely restored, easily accessible by a good road, and offers a variety of services for visitors: bakery, restaurant, art shops, etc. Predictably, it attracts many tourists, and it is unlikely that you will have this place for yourself only. And, yet, I did not feel that the monastery has lost its unique sacred aura. Especially, when I saw two boys lightening candles and taking this very seriously.

The next day we planned to explore Eastern, less visited, part of Lake Sevan. But first we drove to Ijevan, the town about 50 km / 30 miles North-East of Dilijan. The goal was to visit Ijevan Wine-Brandy Factory and buy some famous Armenian Brandy. Indeed, brandy of highest quality has been produced in Armenia since the end of the 19th century with brand of “Ararat” being best known. There is a story that at the end of WWII, during the Yalta Conference, Joseph Stalin gave British Prime-Minister Winston Churchill a bottle of Armenian brandy “Dvin.” Churchill was so impressed that he asked for several cases of it. Reportedly 400 bottles of “Dvin” were shipped to Churchill annually. Following Stalin’s example, during a 2013 meeting at his villa, Russian president Vladimir Putin presented British Prime Minister David Cameron with a bottle of the same Armenian brandy (“Dvin”).

When I grew up in ex-USSR, domestically Armenian Brandy was sold under the name “Armenian Cognac,” but for the export it was marketed as “Armenian Brandy” in order to not violate the rule that only precious beverage produced in French province of Cognac can be labeled “Cognac.” Compared to internationally renown “Ararat” (the factory existed since 1887), “Ijevan” is less recognizable name. In fact, “Ijevan” began its own production only in 1996: prior to that, it shipped unfinished brandies to “Ararat.” But – trust me – today, the quality of “Ijevan” brandies is as good as that of “Ararat.” Plus, you will pay a much lower price for the former. The pride of the factory is brandy “King Abgar” which is aged 40 years, acquiring an incredibly deep flavor. But I was quite happy purchasing a bottle of seven-years-old “Vanuhi” and five-years-old apricot-based brandy. Both – under $10.

After Ijevan, we drove along the Eastern coast of lake Sevan. There is a reason why this part of the lake is much less developed than its Western coast. In former Soviet Union, most villages around Eastern Sevan were populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis. Although at that time it was one country (Soviet Union), the local Armenian authorities treated culturally and religiously different Azerbaijanis with suspicion and they kept the entire infrastructure in this part of Armenia underdeveloped. The same happened to ethnically Armenian settlements on the territory of Azerbaijan. Fast forward, in 1980s, an exchange of population was organized: Armenians from Azerbaijan moved into formerly Azerbaijanian villages in Armenia and vice versa. It was not an easy process, but relatively peaceful and mutually satisfactory. Brand new roads were built around Eastern part of the lake, but then Soviet Union collapsed and little was invested into creating tourist infrastructure along Sevan’s Eastern coast. Hence, today, there is a perfect road and a few villages, but overall the lake feels natural and untouched.

The road along Eastern coast of Lake Sevan

The day was sunny and warm. Naturally, our goal was to find some good beach: to sunbath and take a swim in the crystal clear waters. Unfortunately, truth to be told, there are not many good beaches around Sevan, but we found a real hidden gem. The beach shows as “Gold Beach” on Google maps: it has fine sand and is surrounded by the pine forest. We could not wish anything better and stayed here a few hours.

Gold Beach near Hwy M14, Eastern shore of Lake Sevan

The final destination for this day was the village Tsapatagh, also on Eastern coast of Sevan. Via AirBnB, I found there accommodations which were described as “cozy house with the view of Lake Sevan.” And it was indeed very cozy and traditional village house.

Our home in Tsapatagh village

The house had all modern comforts (hot shower, strong WiFi), but its main “selling point” was this peaceful view from the furnished deck: vineyards with the lake in the distance.

The view from our deck: vineyards and Lake Sevan

There is not much “to do” in Tsapatagh, but it is a good place to take a long walk around. We haven’t seen many people or cars, and this lonely railroad track made me think about old pop-song from the 1970s: “One way ticket.”

And finally, after long day of driving, swimming, and walking, Tsapatagh rewarded us with gorgeous sunset over Sevan.

Sunset over Lake Sevan

Next morning, a scrumptious breakfast was prepared by our hosts. Needless to say that the meal was accompanied again by the view on Sevan.

Armenian “village breakfast”

We stayed only one night in Tsapatagh and, honestly, I somewhat regretted that we need to leave. Being there felt like an immersion in the realities of the authentic and unhurried village life. Clearly and largely this happened thanks to our AirBnB hosts: the local Englsih school teacher, Alina, and her cheerful mother, Asmik. They received us as if we were part of their family or old friends. The life of people in Tsapatagh is not easy: it is difficult to make decent living there, the winters can be harsh, and the urban centers are far away. But Alina and her mother are real patriots of their village and Armenia as a country, and they tell us many stories about living in Tsapatagh.

Our hosts in Tsapatagh village: Alina and her mother, Asmik.

We left Tsapatagh and drove as fast as possible to Yerevan: it was the only day which was reserved for exploring Armenian capital. Situated along the Hrazdan River, Yerevan has been country’s capital since 1918, the fourteenth in the history of Armenia. The origins of Yerevan date back to the founding of the fortress of Erebuni in 782 BC by King Argishti I. Erebuni was designed as a great religious center and royal capital, but later in the history other cities were established, and Yerevan declined in importance. After World War I, thousands of survivors of the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire arrived in this area. Consequently, Yerevan became the capital of the First Republic of Armenia which existed as an independent state between 1918 and 1922, when Armenia was incorporated into Soviet Union. The city expanded rapidly during the 20th century into a world-class cultural center. In 2012, UNESCO named Yerevan as a World Book Capital. With about 1,100,000 inhabitants, Yerevan has more than one-third of Armenia’s total population.

Yerevan, with looming Mt. Ararat as background

Having little time in Yerevan (which I also regretted), we did not go into city’s many great museums, art collections, or artistic performances. Instead, we simply walked around and explored the streets and monuments of Armenian capital. I liked Yerevan a lot: its monumental architecture (some call it “Soviet style”), wide avenues, green alleys and parks, many fountains and interesting sculptures. The city is centered around Republic Square which is home to the office of Armenian Government and National History Museum.

Republic Square in Yerevan

And yet many believe that the most iconic place in Yerevan is the so-called Cascade Complex. The Cascade is a giant stairway made of limestone which links the downtown Kentron area with the neighborhoods of upper city. Inside the Cascade, underneath the exterior steps, are exhibit halls which together compose the Cafesjian Museum of Art. The exterior of Cascade is adorned with fountains and modernist sculptures. The base of the Cascade is designed as a garden with many statues by contemporary international sculptors such as Botero, Lynn Chadwick, and Barry Flanagan. Combined with many open air cafes, restaurants and street performances, Cascade Complex is genuine cultural heart of Yerevan.

The Cascade in Yerevan
My sister-in-law Olga, climbing Cascade’s stairs

Even if you don’t go to Cascade, Yerevan is full of appealing artistic work. I mentioned at the beginning of this story that Armenia produced many talented composers and musicians. One of them was Arno Babajanian. Here is a great statue dedicated to his memory.

Another good place to visit in Yerevan is Lovers’ Park: a big public garden with lush vegetation, man-made waterfalls, sculptures, and cafes.

The statue of Armenian poet and essayist Gevorg Emin in Lovers’ Park

You can also have some fun with public transportation in Yerevan. The taxis are cheap and services similar to Uber are abundant, but Yerevan has also very efficient subway system (“metro”). It is quite deep and the stations are nicely decorated.

Yerevan’s subway
Yerevan’s subway

And it is definitely the only subway (at least, in my experiences), where the cars are decorated with carpets.

Yerevan was the last point of this trip for my friends, Vladimir and Elena: next day, they flew back to Moscow. But I planned to continue the journey together with my sister-in-law, Olga, and visit the Republic of Georgia, another part of former Soviet Union. There is a modern and comfortable train which connects the capitals of Armenia (Yerevan) and Georgia (Tbilisi). It leaves at around 1 pm from Yerevan and arrives at around midnight to Tbilisi. I headed to the train station and boarded this train.

Train Yerevan – Tbilisi.

But the story about adventures in Georgia and Northern Turkey will be in another post. However, the trip to Armenia “caught up with me” in an unexpected way upon return to California. About a month later, I received by mail seven speeding tickets. Granted, I was driving there fast, but not too fast and the roads were modern and wide. Regrettably, I did not bother to inquire about the actual speed limit which – as it turned out – is quite low, less than 60 miles per hour even on major highways. It has also taken a while to figure out information on these speeding tickets, because everything was in Armenian.

Do NOT speed in Armenia!

Good news was that – all tickets combined – it was not terribly expensive: about $200 all together. I paid the fine obediently and…I hope to visit Armenia again: the country with interesting history and culture and amazingly welcoming people.

Sacred Sea: the Trip to Lake Baikal

It is early August of 2021 and my brother Vladimir (who lives in Russia) invited me to join a private boat trip with a group of friends on the lake Baikal. Situated in Russia’s Southern Siberia, Baikal is a natural marvel and also a sacred place.

With 23,600 km3 (5,700 cu mi) of water, Baikal is the world’s largest freshwater lake by volume. It contains 23% of the world’s fresh surface water and it has more water than all North American Lakes combined. If you don’t like numbers picture this: all the world’s rivers combined with every little stream and creek – all of them together – would take a year to fill up Baikal. It is also the world’s deepest lake, with a maximum depth of 1,642 m (5,387 ft). If you emptied it out, you’d have a chasm to rival the Grand Canyon. Baikal is also the world’s oldest lake: it is at least 25 million years old. It covers 31,722 km2/12,248 sq mi – slightly more than Belgium – and it is the world’s seventh-largest lake by surface area. However, Baikal has great “aspirations” for the future growth. Initially, it started with a shudder in earth’s crust: a crack opened in the ground and filled with water. And with that first shudder the earth around Baikal began to tear itself apart. Today, the lake is 70 km wide and more than 600 km long – roughly the distance from San Francisco to Los Angeles. And it continues to grow and open up. Some scientists believe that Baikal is a rift zone opening Eurasian continent like a zipper which will split Asia and become an ocean.

Baikal has amazingly clean water and it is home to many plants and animals which are endemic to the region. A time frame of 25 million years, a large variety of conditions, and the high mountain ranges cutting the lake off from the surrounding regions resulted – in the words of Grigory Galazy – in “a gigantic natural laboratory and center of origin of species.” Some people even argue that if the Beagle had brought Darwin here rather than to Galapagos Islands in South America, he would have found a better place to develop his theory of evolution by natural selection and write his work On the Origin of Species.

Baikal is also a cultural and racial divide. Its Western, more developed side, is populated by Caucasian, mostly Russian, population, with Orthodox Christianity being a major religion. Differently, the Eastern side of the lake is home to Mongoloid people – the Buryats. Initially, their religious practices Buryats were based on the deification of nature, beliefs in spirits and the possibility of their magic influence on the surroundings. From the second half of the 17th century, these shamanic beliefs were displaced by Buddhism. Today, a synthesis of Buddhism and traditional beliefs is major feature of Buryat religious culture. Regardless these religious differences, both ethnic groups – Russians and Buryats – regard Baikal as a sacred lake. Many places on its shores are associated with various legends.

Needless to say that I jumped on my brother’s invitation right away. We flew from Moscow to Irkutsk, the Siberian city nearest to Baikal. To give you idea about the distances: it is a 6 hours flight from Moscow with Irkutsk being 5 hours ahead of Russian capital in terms of the local time. Founded in 1652, Irkutsk evolved into major cultural center in Siberia. In the early 19th century, many Russian officers, and aristocrats were sent into exile here for their part in the Decembrist revolt against Emperor Nicholas I. At that time, Irkutsk had earned the nickname “The Paris of Siberia.” We had one full day in Irkutsk and I liked it a lot: the historic wooden houses, the pleasant embankment along Angara river, abundance of good and inexpensive restaurants, some interesting museums. Here are a few suggestions on “what to do in Irkutsk if you have just one day.” Take a leisurely loooooong walk along Angara river and enjoy the views and some historic monuments.

Monument to Russian Emperor Alexander III

Visit historic and architecturally very appealing churches. My personal favorite was Krestovozdvizhenskaja Tserkov / the Church of the Elevation of the Holy Cross. Founded in 1747, it is famous for colorful and elaborate outside decorations (the style called “Siberian Barocco”). And it is also the only church in Siberia with fully preserved original interior decorations from the 17th century.

Irkutsk has a few interesting museums, but, perhaps, the most peculiar is the so-called “Museum of the Retro Motorbikes and the Items from the Epoch of the USSR.” This is a private museum with dozens of cars and motorbikes plus an extremely eclectic collection of various artifacts from the everyday life in former USSR. In addition a few reconstructed rooms represent the life style of various social groups in Russia in 18-19th centuries. In short, it is a fun place to visit.

And here is a surprise about Irkutsk: it is a good place for cheese connoisseurs. A company called Cheesemaker of Irkutsk developed production of a wide variety of cheeses, mostly of Italian “styles and flavors.” Their store also has a restaurant with menu featuring cheese-based dishes. I tried a few of the cheeses and the favorite was the goat-milk caciotta.

Next day we took a taxi to Irkutsk marina and boarded our vessel called Olymp. While not a luxury yacht, the boat was definitely not bad in terms of the comfort. It had 8 sleeping compartments, several showers, sauna, spacious saloon, big open observation deck. Further, besides crew members, a highly qualified cook Tatyana (she is a chef in one of Irkutsk restaurants) was in our full disposal.

In addition to being excited with a journey around Baikal, I was also quite curious about my travel companions. The thing was that my brother Vladimir and everyone else in our team – except me – were part of a group of people in Russia and other countries who follow spiritual leader named Swami Dharma Sumiran or simply Sumiran (the fellow is actually quite casual and informal). Sumiran is the Master of the Advaita Vedanta spiritual tradition which is both a school of Hindu philosophy and, at the same time, personal spiritual experience. To make things even more complicated, Advaita Vedanta also experienced strong influence of certain Buddhist teachings and beliefs. For those who is interested, here is more information about Advaita Vedanta . Sumiran was with us on this trip, although it was made clear that we are simply going on vacations – not for some spiritual retreat or seminar. Here is the picture of Sumiran on the Baikal shores.

Swami Dharma Sumiran

Irkutsk lies on the Angara river, 72 kilometers (45 miles) below its outflow from Baikal. It has taken our boat about four hours to get to the lake, but the time flew by in an instant. First, we were served an outstanding lunch prepared by our indispensable chef, Tatiana. Look at the picture: all following meals were equally exquisite.

And then we gathered on the upper deck, because the weather was excellent. Here is the male part of our team.

Finally, Angara “opened up” and we saw Baikal.

looking back at angara
entering baikal

Our first stop was literally “around the corner.” The boat was anchored at Mys (Cape) “Tolsty” and we went to see the so-called “Circum-Baikal Railway.”  It is a historical railway which runs along the Northern shore of the lake between towns of Slyudyanka and Baikal (yes, the name is the same as the lake’s). Its total length is 89 km / 60 mi. From the time of its construction in 1905 and until the middle of the 20th century the Circum-Baikal railway was an essential part of Trans-Siberian Railway which connects Russia’s capital Moscow with the city of Vladivostok on Pacific seaboard. In fact, only after its construction, the portions of Trans-Siberian railway on both sides of Baikal were fully linked, and began to transport goods and passengers. To emphasize its importance the Circum-Baikal railway was once referred as “golden buckle on the steel belt of Russia”. Later on, however, for a number of reasons, a duplicate section of the Trans-Siberian railway was built and the original line lost its importance. A unique achievement in engineering (the original plan required building of 33 tunnels and every kilometer of the line required the expenditure of about one wagon of explosives), the Circum-Baikal is one of the picturesque sights of the area. Today, it can be visited either by infrequent tourist trains or – as we did – by boat. We landed and walked along the tracks and through one of the tunnels.

Tracks of Circum-Baikal Railroad

And then we found a good spot on the shore to relax and get a first “feel” of Baikal and surrounding nature. Coming from California, I was quite pleased to see in the mid-August such “spring-like” flowers.

Another few hours on the boat and we arrived to the Bukhta Peschanaja (Sandy Bay) and anchored there for the night. It was dark by then, but when I woke up early next morning, great views and perfect weather greeted me.

Besides natural scenery, Bukhta Peschanaja is also known for walking trees. Strong and frequent Baikal winds blow the sand out from the roots of the trees and even “shift” them up the slope. As the time goes by, the roots are more and more exposed forming “legs” up to 3 meters (10 feet) above the ground.

Walking tree in Bukhta Peschanaja

We tried to not disturb the trees (they are actually quite fragile), but took a good group picture sitting “under the roof” of one of them.

From Bukhta Peschanaja, I and my brother, hiked about 40 min. along the coast to another bay called Bukhta Vnuchka (Granddaughter’s Bay). And again – because of abundance of flowers – all along the trail it felt like a spring time.

When we reached Bukhta Vnuchka, I thought that this would be one of the most memorable spots from the entire journey: look at this calm waters and pristine nature.

It was an excellent place to spend a couple of quiet hours with my brother and simply talk about what is going on in our lives.

When we were about to leave, a strange and beautiful thing happened. The sparkling lights began to come out of the lake’s surface. The picture cannot reflect how shining they were, but, at least, it will give you some idea. And it lasted for about half an hour.

And then it was time to head back to our boat.

And it was also time to say “good bye” to Bukhta Peschanaja

Leaving Bukhta Peschanaja

We had a long boat ride this day, but this was totally Okay, because weather was good, and we spent most time hanging outside, on the upper deck. Doing what? A lot of things: chatting and laughing, napping, playing “jiu-jitsu” and much more.

Some folks preferred to stay in the comfort of boat’s saloon and have hours’ long conversations over tea with endless snacks and fruits served by our chef, Tatiana.

And then, of course, was the time to gather all together for another delicious meal. I guess, you got the picture of our typical day onboard.

By the end of the second day, we reached island Olkhon. Being 71.5 km (44.4 mi) long and 20.8 km (12.9 mi) wide, Olkhon is the third-largest lake island in the world (after Manitoulin and Rene-Levasseur in Canada). There are two versions regarding the origin of its name. Both derive from the language of the Buryats, the indigenous people of Olkhon. The first is that the name comes from the word oyhon – “woody”, and the second is that it comes from olhan – “dry”. Regardless of which version is correct, both words describe the island perfectly. Much of the island is covered by forests and the amount of precipitation is extremely low – about 240 mm (9.4 in) per year. Olkhon has an interesting terrain and is rich in archaeological landmarks. Steep mountains line its Eastern shores. Mount Zhima is the highest point on the island, peaking at 818 m (2,684 ft) above Baikal. The island is large enough to have its own lakes, and features a combination of landscapes: taiga, steppe, and even a small desert can be found here. A deep but narrow strait separates Olkhon from the mainland. There are five villages on the island: Yalga, Malomorets, Khuzhir, Kharantsy, and Ulan-Khushin. The boat was anchored for the night at the Pier Olkhon at the Southwestern tip of the island. A few houses were there, but they appeared to be entirely uninhabited.

our boat at pier olkhon
a few houses near pier olkhon

Next morning, some of us hiked up the slope to enjoy perfect weather and get better view of surroundings.

Then we took off and in couple of hours arrived to the village of Khuzhir – the administrative center of Olkhon and the main hub of the fast-growing tourist industry. You would be surprised, but today one can travel to Khuzhir by the regular mini-bus from Irkutsk and it takes only about 4.5 hours to get there (including time on ferry from the mainland to Olkhon). Baikal attracts increasing number of visitors from all over the world. Given Khuzhir’s “easy to reach location”, many of its residents offer accommodations and other services. Honestly, I had somewhat mixed feelings about Khuzhir. On the one hand, it has picturesque spots and interesting cultural and historic sites. On the other hand, however, the village is definitely overrun by the tourists and felt much less authentic than the other places which we visited on our trip. Here are a few more details. Hands down, the sand beach in Khuzhir is gorgeous. And if you are brave enough to jump into always icy waters of Baikal, there is no better place for doing this.

beach in khuzhir

Originally, population of Olkhon consisted mostly of  Buryats. As I wrote already, their religious beliefs include elements of both Shamanism and Buddhism. Many places on Olkhon are evidence to this. After climbing from the boat landing into the village, the first thing to see are numerous colorful “serges.” A “serge” is a ritual pole or tree which indicates that the place in question has an owner. The serge is also connected to the horse cult, as both the host and the guests tied their horses to it. It is also a symbol of the world tree that unites the three worlds. Therefore, tree horizontal grooves are cut on the pole. The upper one is intended to bind the horses of the heavenly inhabitants of the upper world. The middle one is for the horses of living men. And the lower one is for the horses of the underworld. Anyway, we found that the “serges” on Olkhon offer perfect background for the pictures.

Another interesting place related to Buryats’ religious practices is Shaman’s Rock. Some natives believe that Burkhan, a religious cult figure, lives in the cave in this rock. The other version suggests that Shaman’s Rock is a sacred place used for sacrificial offerings. Approaching Shaman’s Rock, there is a plate attached to the stone which says “The borders of especially revered zone. The territory is not recommended for visitations.”

Sounds confusing? It does. What this means is a warning to keep a respectful distance from the rock and to not climb it so as not to anger the gods and spirits. But temptation is always great and sure enough many tourists (not me, though) disregard this warning and hang out on and around the rock.

Shaman’s Rock

Instead of disturbing local gods and spirits, I opted for hiking down and sunbathing at a beautiful lagoon. It looked like a tropical paradise except that instead of palms, it was surrounded by some sort of pine trees.

After climbing back, I found our nearly entire group ready for another perfect picture.

In Khuzhir, I also highly recommend to visit the Local History Museum of Revyakin. Named after its founder, the school geography teacher, it has great historical collections linked to the culture of the people of Olkhon from Neolithic times to the present day. It also offers expositions of unique flora and fauna that can only be found on Olkhon. A surprising fact learned at the museum was that after the collapse of Communist economic system in the late 1980s, the island and its inhabitants were cut of electricity supply for over a decade. Only in 2005, after laying an underwater cable, the island was wired again for electricity. Since then, Olkhon was really discovered by tourists who gave locals opportunity to make money by renting rooms and bicycles, selling foods and local crafts. Today, the streets of Khuzhir are filled with visitors: both Russians and foreigners. Inevitably, the village lost its authencity, but…it is what it is. A typical street and a house offering accommodations may look like this.

Wooden palisades are covered with advertisements offering various types of “spiritual activities:” yoga, meditation, breathing therapies, etc.

I enjoyed the day out in Khuzhir, but was also glad to head back to our boat when it was time to leave. And other people in our group seemed to have the same feeling: “Let’s go!”

Elena and Svetlana saying “Good bye Khuzhir!”

We parted with Khuzhir, but not Olkhon. Our spot for overnight anchoring was at the Northwestern tip of the island at Mys (Cape) Sagan-Khushun. As I learned later, this area is especially good for hiking. We did not have much time the next morning, but I climbed the nearby hill and took the picture of the cove where we spent the previous night.

Cape Khushun is an attractive area to explore from the land, but it is also quite picturesque from the water.

Cape Khushun from the water

A long ride awaited us this day. We needed to cross the lake (so far we were sailing along its Western shore). And this is not as easy as one may think. Besides significant distances (Baikal is about 80km/50mi wide), the lake is infamous for unpredictable weather changes and dangerous storms. But today we were lucky and in a few hours arrived to a small archipelago called “Malye Ushkanie Ostrova” (“Small Ushkan Islands”). Our destination was “Ostrov Tonkij” (“Thin Island”) which is home to the national preserve “Nerpa Center.” Nerpa is an animal which is endemic to Baikal: that is, there are no other places in the world to see Nerpa. There are ranger station and information center at the entrance to preserve and even possibility to take a picture in a company of Nerpas, Well, not exactly, but nevertheless.

 Essentially, Nerpa is a seal, but it is the ONLY seal living exclusively in the freshwater. It is something of a mystery how Baikal seals came to live here. They may have swum thousands of miles up rivers and streams from the Arctic Ocean and than got “stuck” in the lake never returning back. Or, possibly Lake Baikal was linked to the ocean at some point through a large body of water, such as the West Siberian Glacial Lake, formed in a previous ice age. One way or the other, the scientists estimate that Nerpas inhabite Lake Baikal for some two million years. We went to an observation point and looked at Nerpas splashing and playing with one another.

baikal nerpa

And then, after four more hours on the boat, we arrived to our final destination for this day: Bukhta Zmeyevaya/Snake Bay.

snake bay: thermal springs resort
snake bay: thermal springs resort

The main reason to come here were the natural thermal springs. There are two of them – both right next to the boat landing. Converted into wooden-bathtubs (with water coming from the sandy bottom), the springs have different temperature. But both are hot enough so that after a few minutes of sitting in them you would be naturally tempted to go for a quick dip in the cold lake. We spent about one hour migrating between two springs and the lake.

thermal springs at snake bay

A word of cautioning. There is a reason for the name “Snake Bay.” Two species of snakes are frequently seen in the lush vegetation surrounding the bay: “uzh” (natrix natrix) and “shitomordnik” (ancistrodon haylis). The former is harmless, while the latter – poisonous. But don’t worry too much: simply stay on the trails and wear good leather boots. After bathing in hot springs, I went on a hike to look at the bay from the hill.

The waters of thermal springs in Snake Bay are believed to be healing for various types of ailments and, especially, those related to the muscle-skeletal system. I am not an expert, but after bathing in the springs, the evening felt especially pleasant and relaxed.

The next morning began from a small adventure. Before boat’s departure, I decided to quickly visit the hot springs again. My “meditative” bathing (I was just by myself) was interrupted by a loud siren from our vessel. I turned around and saw a small bear wandering on the slope right above me. Poor fellow appeared to be much more scared than I was.

Then we headed back to the other side of the lake. The main destination for this day was Buddhist Stupa of Enlightment on the tiny island of Ogoy. For those unfamiliar with Buddhist terminology, “stupa” is essentially a mound-like or hemispherical structure containing some sacred relics. Stupas are used as places of meditation or for some religious ceremonies. Before arriving to Ogoy we sailed couple hours in the narrow straight separating Olkhon island from the mainland. A number of rocky outcrops went by along the way.

When we anchored the boat at Ogoy, the rain began pouring and clouds gathered. But strangely this made the appearance of the island even more special and appealing.

island ogoy

Unlike many ancient stupas, the Stupa of Enlightment on Ogoy was built only recently: in 2004. That year an international group of Buddhists traveled around Baikal visiting various sacred places and performing religious ceremonies. Their last stop was on Ogoy, and everyone was impressed with pristine nature and positive energy of the island. To commemorate this visit they carved in the stone the so-called Mantra (sacred text chanted repeatedly) of the Buddha of Compassion. This Mantra consists of six syllables – “Om mani padme hum” – and it symbolizes liberation from all kinds of sufferings. Later, with the blessing and under supervision of renown Buddhist teachers, the Stupa of Enlightenment has been constructed. Buddhist communities from around the globe donated various sacred relics which were placed inside of the stupa.

stupa of enlightment on ogoy island

Some people in our group walked around the stupa in a kind of meditation, while the others (like me) simply observed and enjoyed scenery.

Walking around the island I found an interesting engraving, but – despite significant research later online – was unable to discern its meaning. Here it is.

A small “Buddhist-style” light house sits on the Ogoy’s highest point.

Before leaving, we took a group picture at the stupa.

I am not sure if this was related to our visit of the sacred place, but this day ended with the most impressive sunset of all that we have seen during the entire trip.

The good luck of having excellent weather all the time has left us next day. Strong wind, grey skies and constant rain kept everyone inside the boat. Some of us were ostensibly bored and depressed: like me, my brother, and our leader Sumiran

But some simply “cozied up” and enjoyed each other company.

As it turned out, one person in our group was quite skilled masseur and she offered an ad-hoc massage-therapy classes. Some benefited by being the students and learned new skills, while some simply enjoyed being the “objects” of works.

Nevertheless, by the end of the day we were desperate too stretch the legs and go for some walk regardless of continuing rain. The boat was anchored at a secluded cove near Skala (Rock) Skiper. Interestingly, rain and dark skies made the colors of surrounding nature even more intense.

There was a trail along the coast and I hiked for a few kilometers. The moss along the trail attracted my attention: it was unusually colorful and even had some small flowers.

A few more people from our group caught up with me and we took a very “rainy” picture.

And then we headed back to the boat anticipating the warmth of its saloon and another abundant meal.

We spent this night at the pier of the village Bolshie Koty (Big Cats). Next morning was as rainy as the previous day, but I walked around the village before we left. This place felt much more “lost in time” than touristy Khuzhir.

I stopped at the local (apparently the only one) store which also doubled as a WiFi connection point, and a cafe. The portrait of Russian president, Mr. Putin, overlooking the store reminded me of the past Soviet epoch when it was customary to display the portraits of the Communist party leaders in all public places.

When I returned to the boat, some major news were announced by the crew. The initial plan was to go – again – to the other side of Baikal to the town of Tankhoi. Most people in the group should disembark there and continue overland journey in Buryatia. But Baikal’s unpredictable behavior changed everything. Captain told us that a storm is coming and it would be unsafe to sale across the lake. The only option was to return to Irkutsk and find some transportation from there into Buryatia. The change in plans did not affect me as I was not going to Buryatia. But most people were not happy. Before arrival to Irkutsk we had one more lunch all together and here…some pleasant surprise awaited us. Our famous chef Tatiana decided to cheer us up: she made an excellent cake layered with honey-and-condensed-milk cream.

OUR LAST MEAL ONN THE BOAT

We returned to the same marina where our journey began a week ago. Next day I flew back to Moscow and then to Armenia, one of the fifteen republics of former USSR and currently an independent country. But this will be another story. To conclude, if you are interested to get more in-depth inside in Baikal, its nature, history, culture, etc., here is the book which I highly recommend. Called “Sacred Sea. A Journey to Lake Baikal,” it was written by Peter Thomson, who used to run environmental programs for NPR. The book was published in 2005, but most of its contents are still 100% accurate and relevant. Plus, it is also a very engaging book. Enjoy it, or, better, plan your own trip to Baikal.

Full Lockdown in Turkey or the Best Time to Travel to Cappadocia

At the beginning of May 2021, I planed to go to Turkey for couple of weeks. The idea was to first explore the nature, captivating landscapes and early Christian monuments of Cappadocia and then to spend about ten days with my mother (she was coming from Russia) in some nice resort hotel in the coastal Antalya. The plan was perfect except for the fact that Turkish president Erdogan decided to combine the Islamic religious holiday of Ramadan with the full national lockdown (apparently, in an attempt to battle the increasing rates of COVID pandemic). Traveling between cities and towns has been prohibited, most shops and restaurants were shut down (except take out services), the sale of alcohol banned, etc.

I was about to abandon the trip (especially, after some of booked domestic Turkish flights were canceled), but then learned that all these lockdown rules and measures do NOT apply to foreign visitors. I thought: “This is actually perfect: perhaps, not only domestic Turkish tourists, but also many international travelers decided not to go. Which means, even better time to hit the road with much fewer competitors.” And so I left San Francisco, flew to Frankfurt, then to Istanbul, then to a regional airport of Kayseri. The minivan shuttle was waiting there to take me (about one hour drive) to a town of Goreme which could be seen as an informal “capital” of Cappadocia. Goreme was “discovered” by tourists relatively recently (about 20-30 years ago): it is a very appealing town, super-conveniently located to explore all sites in Cappadocia and – additional bonus – surrounded by captivating rock formations. This is how I first saw Goreme:

Approaching Goreme

When I arrived, it was dark already, but – after so many flights – I decided to take a stroll through the town. The first impression was: “indeed, very unusual architecture literally ‘blended’ into various geological formations.”

Goreme in the evening

It was a very long day of travels, but one more “adventure” was still waiting. When picking up accommodations in Goreme (and selection is abundant), my ultimate choice was a small family-run pension Luwian Stone House. I found it on AirB&B, but then looked up on Google maps and other platforms (Booking.com, etc.). All reviewers praised this place for the genuine hospitality and feeling of being in a “home away from home.” Another “selling point” was that breakfast – included in the price – consisted almost exclusively of the products grown in the garden and prepared by the family who owned this pension. The only problem was that I usually do not eat breakfast, but it was resolved by asking my hosts to serve breakfast for dinner on the evening of my arrival. And a real feast was awaiting when I finally came home

Everything is from the family garden and produced by my hosts except bread, cheese and oranges.

My room was simple but tastefully decorated and with super-comfortable bed.

I spent here four nights and slept like a baby.

First Day in Cappadocia: the “Green Tour.”

The next day I met the entire cheerful family of the Luwian Stone House owners. Yusuf (on the right, with eyeglasses) studied economics in Antalya university with the hope to get a job in finances in the regional government, but…it is Turkey where nepotism reigns. Yusuf did not have influential relatives and did not get the job. Hence, instead he runs Luwian Stone House and does it very nicely. His mother (in the middle of the picture) is the “queen” of the garden and kitchen. And she is a “five stars” cook as I personally experienced while at Luwian Stone House. Finally, the younger (but significantly bigger) brother, Mahmud, is like a “gate keeper:” he is normally always at reception and makes sure that everything has been taken care of and all guests are happy.

Family crew of the Luwian Stone House

Fast forward, during four days in Luwian Stone House, I spent significant chunk of time on this shady patio, right in front of my room either having coffee in the morning, or supper in the evening, or discussing a wide range of political, cultural, historical issues with Yusuf. Sometimes, this was done sitting at the table and, sometimes, laying on a mattress covered with Oriental rugs.

Yusuf was also a great source of advice on “what” and “how” to see in the area, and – in case of commercial tours and activities – was able to get for his guests the best possible price. My choice for the first day was the so-called Green Tour. It is a full day trip (40 Euro/50$) in a minivan with a small group of people (8-10). Lunch in a local restaurant is included. Even if you stay for a few days and plan to discover area by yourself, I still recommend to take the Green Tour. You will visit a number of sites and get a good sense of Cappadocia’s history, landscapes, and culture. We first went to a great overlook over Pigeon Valley, where our guide Fatin presented a short lecture highlighting most unique geological aspects of Cappadocia.

Overlooking Pigeon Valley.

Guvercinlik Vadisi (Pigeon Valley) earned its name from the countless man-made dovecotes (Pigeon Houses) that have been carved into the soft volcanic tuff. Since ancient times Pigeons have been used in the Cappadocia region both as food and the source of fertiliser for the infertile soil. While pigeons no longer play such an important agricultural role, their rocky homes have still been maintained by locals and can be found atop rock pillars and inside excavated cave houses and churches. They are particularly numerous in this valley. The best way to see Pigeon Valley is from above via a hot air balloon tour, but, unfortunately, all hot air balloon tours were canceled because of lockdown measures (don’t ask me how such tours are related to COVID Pandemic).

The next destination was Uchisar. Uchisar is both the name of the town and the natural rock citadel/castle which is the tallest point of Cappadocia. Being 60-metres-high, the castle-mountain is visible from a great distance and has the form of a large cylindrical tower. It is crisscrossed by numerous underground passageways and rooms, some of which can still be visited. In Byzantine times (6-7th century AD) Uchisar castle served both as residencies as well as cloisters. About 1,000 people lived then in the castle. The landscape around Uchisar is also marked by the scattered fairy chimneys.

The mountain-castle of Uchisar

After Uchisar, we went to Derinkuyu Underground City. And it is, indeed, a real ancient multi-level underground city. Derinkuyu has six levels of rooms and extends to a depth of approximately 85 metres (279 ft). It was large enough to have sheltered about 20,000 people together with their livestock and food stores. It is the largest excavated underground city in Turkey.

The entrance into Derinkuyu Underground City

The caves at Derinkuyu have been initially built in the soft volcanic rock by the Phrygians in the 8th–7th centuries BCE. When the Phrygian culture died out in Roman times, the new inhabitants, now Greek-speaking early Christians, expanded the caverns to current multiple-level structures adding the chapels for Christian worship and Greek inscriptions. The city was fully formed in the Byzantine era, when it was used as protection and escape from Muslim Arabs during the Arab–Byzantine wars (780–1180 CE). Derinkuyu was and remains connected with other underground cities through many kilometers of tunnels. These underground cities continued to be used by the Christians as protection from the Mongolian invasions of Timur in the 14th century and from the Turkish Muslim rulers after the region fell to the Ottomans. Cappadocian Greeks, used the underground cities as late as 20th century to escape periodic persecutions. In 1923, the Christian inhabitants of the region were expelled from Turkey and moved to Greece in the population exchange between Greece and Turkey: this was the time when the caves were abandoned by humans.

60m/180feet tall ventilation shaft

Unfortunately, the pictures taken in these cave rooms and corridors cannot convey the feel of this place: the mixture of “captivating/breath taking/grim.” But go there and wander in both horizontal and vertical directions. Explore what used to be wine and oil presses, stables, cellars, storage rooms, refectories, chapels, and even (yes!) cemeteries. Unique to the Derinkuyu and located on the second floor is a spacious room with a barrel-vaulted ceiling. It has been reported that this room was used as a religious school.

The “religious school” room
The entrance into “cemetery” room.

Here, on this picture, you can get somewhat more information about Derinkoyu and some other underground cities.

Our guide, Fatin, has promised to take us for a lunch to some special place. As it turned out, his choice was a restaurant situated on the bottom of Ihlara valley. Ihlara Valley is a canyon with a depth of approximately 100m/300 feet which was formed by the Melendiz River. It begins at Ihlara village and ends with Selime Monastery at Selime village after making 26 bends along 14 kilometers.

Ihlara Valley from the top

Today, you can comfortably hike all 14 km following several trails winding along the stream. Clearly, there is no way to get lost as you can move in only two directions. It is believed that the valley housed more than four thousand dwellings and a hundred cave churches decorated with frescoes. Around eighty thousand people once lived in Ihlara Valley. Hiking towards our restaurant, we visited a number of cave churches with quite impressive frescoes.

Yilanli (Serpent) Church
Yilanli (Serpent) Church

Quite honestly, however, for me, the best part of visiting Ihlara Valley were not the ruins and historical monuments, but simply the stroll along the creek: the air was fresh and invigorating, the sound of various birds was powerful and yet peaceful, the scenery was unbelievably green and alive. The whole hike was somewhat close to a deep walk-meditation.

Trail through Ihlara Valley
Taking rest on the hike in Ihlara Valley

And finally we reached some rustic looking buildings which was our restaurant.

Clearly, I enjoyed the meal after all previous activities, but I equally “savored” the view while chewing on the grilled trout.

The day and Green Tour was not finished yet. Our final destination was multi-level Selime monastery carved into the slope of the rocky mountain.

The top of Selime monastery

Besides being an astonishing rock-cut construction, Selime monastery is also largest religious structure in the Cappadocia which has changed hands several times. The layers of several civilizations have been discovered at the ancient site including Hittites, Persians, Romans, Early Christians, Byzantines, Seljuk Turks and Ottomans. Overall, this place was inhabited between 9th century BC and 16th century AD. As you climb to the top of Selime, a feel emerges that this place dominates the entire area.

The view from Selime monastery

The Christian inhabitants of Selime cut into the volcanic tuff a Cathedral Church (i.e. it used to be a Bishop’s seat). Inside, original frescoes are intact. The church is separated into 3 sections by two rock columns. Kitchens and stables are also present as well as monks’ living quarters.

The entrance into Selime Cathedral (from inside)
Altar with remains of frescoes at Selime Cathedral

One column has a carved-in sizable seat. Not sure if it was thought to be a Bishop’s chair, but I sat there for a few minutes absorbing the atmosphere of the Cathedral and picturing myself as a priest serving ancient Liturgy.

Before heading back to our minivan and returning to Goreme, I climbed to second level of Selime Cathedral to take the last truly “commanding” view of the surroundings.

When we returned to Goreme, it was supper time. Because of the lockdown, all restaurants served only “take away” meals. Yusuf, my host at Luwian Stone House recommended the place called Anatolian Kitchen and I was not disappointed. For about 10 US $, I was served two delicious items. One was gozleme – the layered flatbreads stuffed with many things. My choice was goezleme with potatoes and spinach. The second dish was selection of seven different Turkish “mezze” (appetizers). The day ended up with another feast.

Gozleme with spinach and potatoes (right) plus selection of “mezze” (left)

The Second Day in Cappadocia: Goreme Open Air Museum and Hiking Through Love and White Valleys

I am not a big fan of ethnographic open-air museums. Usually, for my taste, they are too “polished” and “over-restored” plus inevitably attract crowds and bus-loads of tourists. But I decided to make an exception for Goreme Open Air Museum given the fact that for several centuries this settlement was the cultural and religious heart of Cappadocia. I also hoped that because of lockdown regime much fewer tourists would come there. And this was a good decision. Goreme Open Air Museum is situated only about 1,5 kilometres / 1 mile out of current town of Goreme. The hike there along the road offers nice scenery

On the way from Goreme town to Goreme Open Air Museum

So, what actually “Goreme Open Air Museum” is? In short, it is an impressive residential, monastic and church complex with most structures being either carved into the rocks or situated in the natural caves. While this complex traces its history back to 4 th century AD, most still existing churches are from 10-12 th centuries.

A fragment of Goreme Open Air museum.

The names of three Early Christian Church Fathers are related to Cappadocia. All of them lived in 4th century AD: St. Basil the Great, his brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus. Supporting each other, these three men created a new unity in Christian way of thinking and living. In particular, St. Basil the Great is credited with creating a new model of Christian settlements where the emphasis was given on communal living and regimented worship under supervision of a priest. Often, in such early Christian communes, both the monastics and lay people lived together. It is believed that what has become Goreme Open Air Museum used to be one of such church/monastic settlements

The view from one of former residential buildings overlooking the neighboring valleys

Goreme Open Air Museum also attracts tourists because of many beautiful frescoes adoring the walls of the churches with colors still retaining their original freshness. There are about 15 churches that can be visited. All of them are interesting and having couple hours you can them all. However, three have become my personal favorites: Apple (Elmali) Church, Dark Church (you need to pay extra fee to visit), and Buckle (Tokali) Church. Take a look at the random selection of pictures taken in these churches

By noon I was done with Goreme Open Air Museum and after quick lunch went on a hike through the Love and White Valleys which connect Goreme and Uchisar (I wrote already about Uchisar castle describing first day). Love Valley is one of the most hilarious creations I’ve seen from the Mother Nature. Over millennia, various types of rock, including volcanic ash, have eroded to create dozens of massive, phallic-shaped formations, technically known as hoodoos. Love Valley eventually evolves into White Valley, which is a deep canyon with perfectly white walls on either side. The hike itself is mostly gentle, and can be completed in about three hours. Also, unless you go by car, this hike is the best way to get from Göreme to Uçhisar Castle. There is a trail marker to enter Love Valley which is a few kilometers out of Goreme town: for about 40 lira / 5 US $ you can comfortably get there by taxi.

As you begin hiking into Love Valley, you are essentially walking on a small country road — it is possible one or two cars may pass you. I saw some small sheds and people working on their land, but otherwise it was completely void of humans.

In less than one kilometer you begin to see the massive phalic rock formations looming up everywhere.

The phallic formations are only at the beginning of the hike and soon I was into the portion known as “White Valley”. It felt like a magical fairy tale land, which was aided by the fact there was no one else in the valley!

Most of this hike is fairly flat. Near the end of the valley, you begin to gain a bit of elevation, and the gorgeous white rock walls become truly panoramic and visible.

Eventually the valley/canyon becomes very narrow. At this point, you need to keep your eyes to the left and look for various trails that lead up to the edge of the valley and to a road that is barely visible from the bottom of the canyon. By the end of this climbing, the upper portion of the side of canyon is quite colorful.

Once you are on the country road winding along the edge of White Valley, you will see Uçhisar Castle in the distance.

I walked to Uchisar castle and – being this time just myself unlike first day – wandered through the streets of this peculiar town.

Rather than waiting for a bus to go back to Goreme, I tried to hitch-hike and was almost instantly taken by some local pharmacist. After coming back to Luwian Stone House, I assembled a nice dinner plate with two types of gozleme, some local “basturma” (very thin slices of dried beef meat), and fresh vegetables. But then Yusuf came and brought a quite interesting addition to my meal. It turned out that the leaves of some wild plant – somewhat similar to wild dandelions – are widely used by the locals instead of “commercial” salad. I was given a substantial portion of it to try. Despite original skepticism, it turned out to be very tasty. Look at this perfect present from the nature on the top of my plate.

Day Three: One of the Best Hikes of My Life (Red and Rose Valleys)

The hike through the Red and Rose Valleys is relatively easy and short: just about 10 km. Technically, it can be done in 3 hours. However, the landscapes along the trail are so diverse, captivating and picturesque that you can easily spend the entire day exploring and savoring this area. The starting point is at Kaya Campground – a few kilometres from Goreme.

Overlook of Red and Rose Valleys at the beginning of the trail

Once you find the beginning of the trail, it is pretty much straightforward and in just a few hundred meters it will descend into Meskendir Valley.

Going down into Meskendir Valley

Although less known compared to Red and Rose Valleys, Meskendir is a charming, narrow canyon full of caves and tunnels. You follow along the riverbed with steep walls on each side.

Mount Erciyes erupted approximately 2.6 million years ago, covering the entire area in volcanic ash and lava. They evolved into a soft rock that is easily carved out to create houses and churches. Early Christians in the area created thousands of structures throughout the hillsides of Cappadocia. And you will see plenty of these dwellings when hiking through Meskendir Valley.

I was also very lucky to be here at the beginning of May – the short window of time when vegetation is unbelievably green, lush and blooming.

The turning point from the trail along Meskendir Valley into Rose Valley is at a set of vendors (they sell fresh Orange juice, coffee, tea, etc.) marked as “Bufe” on Google map. There is a well visible trail which branches off to the right and this is the way you should follow. As you walk, keep your eyes to the left and look for the sign indicating Direkli Kilise (Column Church). The entrance in and facade of it looks like this:

Column Church is absolutely a MUST to see. This cave church has several stories, fitted with perfectly carved columns across multiple floors and rooms. It is breathtaking.

I spent about half hour in a state close to meditation, and nobody bothered me there. Continuing on the trail, about one kilometer after Direkli Kilise, you will dead-end into the other trail going to the right and left (think of T intersection). Essentially, in order to get into Red Valley, you need to go to the right, but…not so fast. Walk first a few hundred meters to the left in order to visit and see another cave church called Haçlı Kilise (Cross Church). You will find there a huge colorful fresco dating back to the 9th century.

Also, lift your head up and discover a huge cross carved in the ceiling: hence, the name of the church.

When I came to Hakli Kilise, two women from Russia were there. They played some recorded Orthodox Christian liturgical music and sang along beautifully. This was quite an experience. Then I was back on the trail heading into Red Valley. This portion of trail has probably the best views of the entire hike.

My hike ended at the so-called Panorama View Point. This is where you normally would run into a bunch of people since it is accessible by car and big tourist busses. Also normally there would be here a variety of food and drink vendors, but – because of lockdown regime – today, this place was almost void of people. I was tired, but very happy with both the entire hike and this last perfect panoramic view of Red and Rose Valleys

Similarly to previous day, I hitchhiked back to Goreme contemplating some abundant take-out feast, as I was very hungry. However, the day presented with another great surprise. My hosts, the owners of Luwian Stone House, prepared a perfect three-course meal consisting of yogurt-based soup with burglur, pumpkin stew, and sweet semolina cakes.

The Last Half-Day in Cappadocia: a Perfect Surprise for the End of the Trip

I needed to leave Goreme by noon in order to go back to Kayseri airport and fly to Istanbul and then, the next day, to Antalya. Still, there were a few hours left and I had one more destination in mind. I heard about the place called “Hidden Church,” another cave church with – apparently – beautifully preserved and abundant frescoes. Problem was that according to all information found on Internet this church was indeed difficult to find and also it was locked for the regular visitors. But one of fellow travelers suggested to go to the nearby El Nazar Church and talk to its caretaker who had the keys for and knew the trail to Hidden Church. I hiked to El Nazar Church which is situated couple of kilometers out of Goreme and is an interesting destination on its own.

El Nazar Church

Nobody was there when I arrived, but a few minutes later a briskly walking man showed up, the church’ caretaker.

I did not want to press the matter right away and first asked to show El Nazar Church. He was very happy to get such request because the church receives few visitors and he was clearly bored. After the tour, I mentioned Hidden Church and asked if he can help to see it. Without hesitation, he produced a key, but said that he needs to stay at El Nazar and simply explained how to find the Hidden Church. In fact, it is very close to El Nazar, bur its location is somewhat tricky. I followed his guidelines and was able to identify the entrance: the church is accessed from the slope of the mountain, with the stairs leading to a natural arch. After entering this arch, you will find the locked metal gates, but of course I had the keys.

The entrance to Hidden Church

I opened the church entrance and, hands down, saw the best frescoes from the entire trip to Cappadocia. The paintings were perhaps not the best restored but simply very well and naturally preserved.

I had this place, the Hidden Church, for myself only and stayed there for about one hour. And then I walked out and, from the church entrance, took this final look on surrounding area and landscape which was truly a quintessential Cappadocia

The view from the entrance to Hidden Church near Gireme

This was the end of this trip – my first visit to Cappadocia. I felt that it was too short and, also, that I really liked this part of Turkey. I will be back there. For sure.

Yucatan: Pink Beaches, Cenotes, Flamingos, and much more…

Normally, in January/February I go to Hawaii to visit friends and to get a healthy portion of suntan and swimming. But this year with required COVID test or self-quarantine upon arrival, this option looked complicated. Instead, I decided to go to Mexico and check out Yucatan. First, let’s make it clear: there are two “Yucatans.” There is Yucatan state and Yucatan peninsula. The latter incorporates three states: Campeche, Quintana Roo (this is where famous Cancun and Playa del Carmen are), and Yucatan itself. I was interested in the latter – the Yucatan state which is mostly known for beaches and numerous sites of ancient Mayan civilization (Chichen Itza being the most famous one). As you will see later, Yucatan has much more to offer. And the good news is that – at this point – Mexico remains one of the few countries which not only allows Americans to visit, but also does not require any COVID tests or quarantine. And so for $213 I took American Airlines flight from San Francisco to Miami, 50 min. transfer and then one-and-half hour flight to Cancun.

First Destination: Colonial Town of Valladolid.

Yes, there is “original” Valladolid in Spain, but there is also a well preserved and very appealing Valladolid right in the middle of Yucatan state. It is a perfect base to stay if your time is limited and you like to explore many things in Yucatan. The best way to get to Valladolid is to take a comfortable and easy two hours ride by ADO bus company from the downtown Cancun station. In Valladolid, my recommendation is to stay either in a hotel or some AirBnB on the street called Calzada de Los Frailes. This semi-pedestrian, cobblestone street with nicely restored houses is full of small art shops, cafes, restaurants. It is only 5 min. away from the main town plaza and yet it is quiet and relaxed. Here is a picture which sort of captures the sense of Calzada de Los Frailes.

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If you follow Calzada de los Frailes in North Eastern direction, you will come to the historical center of Valladolid. But I first walked in exactly opposite direction: my destination was former Franciscan monastery: Convento de San Bernardino de Sena.

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Before going inside or getting any tourist information, I first simply walked along its facade and was mesmerized by the texture of stones and intensity of colors of the monastery’s walls.

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As it turned out, both the history and location of St. Bernardino convent are quite interesting. First, technically it is situated not in Valladolid, but right beyond Valladolid city limits and in adjacent neighborhood called Sisal. When the convent was built by Franciscan monks (1552-1560), Sisal was a fully independent indian town which existed until the end of 19 th century side-by-side with Valladolid controlled by Spaniards. By building monastery in Sisal the Franciscan monks pursued two goals. The first was to organize and oversee the conversion of the Mayan population right from the middle of their settlement. The second goal was to stay as independent as possible from the Spanish colonial authorities who controlled Valladolid.

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The name Sisal is also Mayan. It derives from Ziiz-Ha which translates as Cold Water, because of a huge underground natural water reservoir which was under the monastery. The monks – not Mayans – were able to construct a reliable well and use the water to grow fruit orchards.

The monastery is open for visitors and I highly recommend to check it out: simply wander around and relax (there were no other visitors, when I was there). The architectural complex has many patios, courtyards, galleries, rooms with ancient vestments, etc. There was this feel in the air that “the monks just left” (although the monastery was secularized in 1755). I spent a good hour there enjoying tranquility of this place.

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And then I walked back into Valladolid (it takes maximum 20 minutes from monastery to the center of the town).

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Valladolid of Yucatan was named after Valladolid in Spain, at that time – the capital of Spanish Empire. Interestingly, but originally (1543), Valladolid was founded in a different location – at a lagoon called Chouac-Ha in the municipality of Tizimín. However, Spanish settlers complained about the mosquitos and humidity at the water and petitioned to have the city moved further inland.

In 1545, Valladolid was relocated to its current place and built atop a Mayan town called Zací or Zací-Val, whose buildings were dismantled to reuse the stones and to build the Spanish colonial town. In 1705, there was a revolt by local Maya; the rebels killed a number of town officials who had taken refuge in the cathedral. When the revolt was suppressed, the cathedral was considered irreparably profaned, and was demolished. A new cathedral was built the following year that still exists on the main plaza. And it looks quite stately.

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If you like small boutique shops, local folk arts and handicrafts, small cafes, etc., you can easily spend couple days enjoying Valladolid. For me, it was more of a base to explore the area, but I liked a lot main square (especially, by the time of sunset)

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I also discovered two “hidden gems” which are highly recommendable. One is an unassuming from the outside panaderia/ bakery called Panaderia La Especial



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Whatever I tried there, was outstanding in quality and they have wide selection of various baked goods. And the price is a fraction of what you would pay in US.

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My absolute favorites were their cheesecakes: much lighter in fat and less sweet than American version.

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The second surprise expected at Mercado Municipal – town market. It is open every day from morning until 4 pm. I went there to buy a supply of fresh fruits and some other locally made foods and spices. What I did not expect to find there were dozens of stalls selling a variety of local handicrafts. I ended up buying a turquoise pendant. And – for about 8 $ – who wouldn’t?

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I still had most of the afternoon and decided to visit EkBalam – the local smaller version of Chichen Itza – the ruins of an ancient Mayan city. Best way to get there is by collectivo – a shared taxi fir four persons. This would cost you 50 pesos – about $2.5. But it was already later in the day and waiting for three more riders was long and boring. And so, I “splurged” and paid for entire taxi: 200 pesos/ 10 US $. If seriously, this is ridiculously cheap, because it takes about 35-40 min. to get there. Granted, Ek Balam is much smaller than Chechen Itza, but it has two advantages. First, it does not attract such crowds (2.5 mln. people visit Chechen Itza each year). Second, Chechen Itza is build on the plain. Differently, the remains of Ek Balum are in jungles which – to me – feel more romantic. I wondered around ending by most impressive structure – the acropolis

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And then I climbed on top of it which is totally permitted here, but not in Chechen Itza. The view was more than satisfactory.

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All this time I was just by myself – no other visitors. And it was afternoon. I took advantage of this situation and great location and used the rooftop of acropolis for my siesta. Only after about 30 min. of peaceful sleep, other tourist couple arrived. They woke me up, but this was also my chance to take a picture of myself.

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Another ten bucks for taxi, back to town, good dinner in a decent restaurant and back to my AirBnB. Tomorrow is a big day – the day of exploring cenotes.

Exploring Cenotes near Valladolid

Many people visit Yucatan specifically to see and enjoy cenotes. So, what is “cenote?” Pronounced seh-NO-tay, they are water-filled sinkholes that naturally occur in limestone rock when an underground cave collapses in on itself and exposes the groundwater underneath. Some of cenotes are fully enclosed in the caves while others are either fully or partially exposed to an open air. People come to cenotes to relax and swim in their cool and crystal clear waters. There are hundreds of cenotes dotted around the Yucatan Peninsula and some of them are extremely popular with locals and tourists alike. In Mayan times a number of the cenotes were used for sacrificial purposes and objects such as gold, pottery and even human and animal remains have been found at the bottom of some cenotes.

Here is a great website which tells you about and helps locate cenotes of different kinds and all over Yucatan. The bottom line is that the most appealing cenotes have become commercial enterprises. That is Ok with me: I don’t mind to pay a few dollars for pleasure of swimming in some charming cave. Problem is when a certain popular cenote gets crowded, because a tourist bus has arrived. General recommendation is simple: go and visit early. Then there is a good chance that you will have the entire place for yourself. And so I rented a bicycle (many places in Valladolid offer bikes for rent) and explored three cenotes. My favorite was cenote Oxman (about 5 km. from Valladolid). It costs 7 US $ to enter and it has very nice facilities: showers, changing rooms, restaurant. It looks like this from the entrance

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When I approached cenote, just couple of other people were already splashing and having fun.

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I went down and…it felt like being in a real paradise.

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This is what you see from the bottom of cenote Oxman
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And this is where you actually take your heathy swim
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Look at this limestone formations which are intertwined with lush vegetation.

And this was my day of cenotes. Tomorrow I am heading to a small coastal town of Las Colorades – the town of white sand and pink (yes!) beaches, flamingos and salt mining. Luckily, Las Colorades remains – as of now – untouched by mass tourists. I will tell more in the next post.

Las Coloradas: the Town of Pristine Beaches, Salt Ponds, Pink Lakes and Flamingos.

First thing first: where are Las Coloradas and why to go there? The village is situated on the coast, on the very tip of Yucatan peninsula, about 20 km from the popular tourist destination – the town of Rio Lagartos. Las Coloradas is a new settlement. It did not exist until 1950s and in fact you won’t be able to find it on the maps until late 1980s. Why? Because originally it was created as a “ranch” which produced salt and was owned by a company Industria Salinera de Yucatan Sociedad Anónima. There is a colorful, tragic and somewhat violent story of the company’s workers who eventually were able to organize themselves in a very strong trade union, negotiate best conditions of work, and – most importantly – “buy out” their homes and land so that they would not be owned by the company anymore becoming instead a real town. This is how main street of Las Coloradas looks now

Las Coloradas is situated on a narrow strip of land about 2 km wide. On one side it faces the Gulf of Mexico. The other side of the village is exposed to a chain of lagoons. And this is where the salt ponds are built and salt harvested.

On this side of the town, you will also find stunning cotton-candy pink lakes filled with salt. The vibrant color is due to red-colored algae, plankton, and brine shrimp that thrive in the salty environment. Further, as the water evaporates (which is part of the salt production process), these organisms become more concentrated, glimmering pink in the bright Mexican sunlight. Day-tourists come to Las Coloradas to wander around the lakes and absorb the beauty of these unusual landscape and color combination.

Want to hear a cool fact? The reason flamingos are pink is because they eat these pink creatures. Normally their feathers are white: they change color after eating this stuff! Speaking of flamingos, these graceful birds are the second reason to visit Las Coloradas. Here you will find hundreds of them.

Unlike other tourists, my choice was to stay for a few days in Las Coloradas. Via AirBnB, I found a modest, but very comfortable home (yes, there was hot shower and decent Internet connection). And it was right next to pink lakes.

This is my house from outside
And this is inside

Special thanks goes to my hosts: Juan Alberto Parra and his mother. Juan Alberto is the nephew of the charismatic leader of the local trade union, Arturo Castillo Dzul. It was Arturo Dzul who in the late 1970s managed to organize disenfranchised workers into a strong trade union and initiated the process of lands and homes’ transition from being a property of salt company into the property of town and people who live there. I was impressed, for example, by the fact that ordinary workers are now paid here about 300 US $ a week plus health insurance plus paid vacations. Not all doctors in Merida (Yucatan’s capital) make this type of money.

Chatting with my host was a unique experience: Juan Alberto is an excellent source of the local oral history and knows literally everyone in the town. As for his mother, well…here is just one example. Breakfast was not part of my accommodations arrangement, but I woke up in the morning from the knock on the door and was presented with delicious meal.

Local fish mojarra (similar to tilapia) in two versions: as soup and fried.

Speaking of food, Las Coloradas has a decent selection of places to eat. Nothing fancy, but very good quality. Further, for people who like fish and seafood, this is a right place to be. My favorite was cafe called Lalo’s. On first night, I ordered a portion of shrimp ceviche (for about 10 US $) and this is what was served:

Absolutely delicious blend of flavors, super fresh shrimps, and there was enough for two dinners.

Why I decided to stay in Las Coloradas for a few days? First, I wanted to have an experience of being for a while in an authentic Mexican village with people unspoiled by mass tourism. And in this respect Las Coloradas exceeded all expectations. I felt being truly welcomed into this community. Just a small example. No matter how many times a day I would pass the same house walking the same street, but its inhabitants would say again and again: “buenos dias” (good day) or “buenos tardes” (good afternoon). Many homes in Las Coloradas still look like traditional Yucatan houses.

Second, Las Coloradas has AMAZING white sand beach which – hard to believe – I had entirely to myself. The waters are calm and there are no dangerous currents: excellent place for swimming.

My only company were birds: gulls and pelicans.

The original plan was to be in Las Coloradas for three nights and to go afterwards to Chichen Itza – the most important Mayan archeological site of Yucatan. Guess what? I canceled visit to famous ruins and extended my stay in Las Coloradas. But then it was nevertheless time to say “Good bye” and move to next destination: the town of Homun which is probably the best place in Yucatan to visit cenotes of all kinds: commercial and not, fully enclosed in caves and open to the air. This will be in my next post. I left from Las Coloradas early – at time of sunrise, around 6 am. And, of course, my hosts – who made me feel truly like at home – Juan Alberto Parra and his mother were awake to say: good bye and come back soon!

 

Homun: World Capital of Cenotes

Homun is a dusty town situated about 40 km east of Merida, the capital of Yucatan state. It takes about one hour to come here and the cheapest way is by colectivo (shared van): 28 pesos / less than 1.5 US. The colectivo station in Merida is on Calle 52 and between Calle 65 and 67. The reason why people come to Homun is to visit many cenotes surrounding this town.

A cenote is a natural pit, or sinkhole, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater. Often in cenotes the sections of cave roof have collapsed revealing an underlying cave system. In Yucatán Peninsula, the ancient Mata have used cenotes for both water supplies and sacrificial offerings. The term “cenote” derives from a Mayan word tsʼonot to refer to any location with accessible groundwater. Water in cenote is normally very clear, as it comes from rain and filters slowly through the ground. Naturally, cenotes are popular among both locals and visitors to Yucatan as good places to swim while enjoying unusual geological formations.

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In short, if Yucatan is the best Mexican state to explore cenotes, then Homun is Yucatan’s capital of cenotes. There are dozens of them here: of all kinds, sizes and degree of commercialization. Some have even been converted into luxury resorts with boutique accommodations and fine restaurants (Santa Barbara is a good example), while the others remain relatively undeveloped being situated on a private property of some local farming family. One can easily spend in Homun couple days going from cenote to cenote: exploring, swimming in their cool (but not cold) waters, and taking pictures (some cenotes feature impressive stalactites and stalagmites).

I stayed in Homun in a simple but very comfortable hotel called Hospedaje Papa Grande (Grandfather’s Hotel). It is run by super friendly and welcoming Don Hector and his nephew Ivan. I highly recommend this place.

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On the evening of arrival day, upon my request, Don Hector arranged an excellent massage (300 pesos / 15 US $ per hour) and suggested a good place to eat: restaurant at the hotel Santa Maria. But first I walked to the main town square and looked at different small “tiendas” / shops.

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A huge red structure looming from beyond town square attracted my attention. From the distance it looked like a grain elevator. But when I approached, it turned out to be a fairly ugly but impressive size-wise church

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I asked later Don Hector about it and he explained that the church was built about 300 years ago by Spaniards who were keen to convert all local Mayans into Christianity. Their idea was that the new Christian churches replacing traditional old Mayan temples and sacred places should be as impressive as possible. Hence, the size of this church. Regrettably, the Spaniards also used for church construction the stones and blocks from old Mayan religious structures.

But back to cenotes. The best way to explore them comfortably and efficiently is to hire a local guide with motorized tricycle. Don Hector recommended a young fellow named Daniel and this was another excellent recommendation. The deal was: for 200 pesos (10 US $), he will show five different cenotes. The entrance fees to each (typically 50 pesos) were on top of it. I asked in advance to take me to less commercial and touristy places – the cenotes where “the locals go” – and Daniel did great job accommodating this request.

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Daniel and his motorized tricycle.

The first cenote – actually most commercial of all – was called Canunchen

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Entrance from outside
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To come to cenote you need to descend fairly steep ladder.

One of requirements in commercial cenotes is that you should wear a safety jacket. So, I complied…

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Canunchen is a fairly big cenote: you can really swim – not just “splash” – there.

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Then we went to cenote called Hool Kosom which was a pleasant surprise. I actually wanted originally to go to this cenote (based on reviews from other people), but Google maps indicated that it is “permanently closed.” As if reading my mind, Daniel brought me there and…it was perfectly open. I liked very much swimming in crystal clear waters and under bright light coming from almost ideally round natural “window.”

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The next cenote was a very special experience. It is called Nu’ku’uch Tzo No Ot. Here is entrance:

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And this was the only picture that I was able to take in this cenote, because I did not have a water-proof camera. Let me explain. After descending these steps, you need to swim through a very short (no more than one yard) underwater tonel. And then you arrive in a nicely lit cave which is entirely disconnected from the outside world and has an array of beautiful stalactites and stalagmites. A young fellow named Alejandro was “in charge” of this cenote: he accompanied me into underground cave and explained that it was a sacred Mayan place.

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Alejandro (right) is in charge of cenote Nu’ku’uch Tzo No Ot

The next cenote was Tza Ujun Kat. The entrance into it did not look very appealing.

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However, after descending into cenote, I realized that this is my favorite of all visited on this trip. Some decorative tropical plants were in the middle of a big arena-like grotto and there were many chirping birds coming in and out of cenote through the big opening in cenote’s ceiling. This place really “smelled and sounded” very good.

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The water surrounded cenote’s walls so that it was possible to swim full circles.

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But most importantly, this cenote had an array of impressive stalagmites and stalactites.

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I stayed here for at least 40 min. Honestly, visiting four cenotes, descending into each, swimming, getting out, etc. felt like “enough is enough.” But – o human grid! – I paid for five and was absolutely decisive to visit five. Luckily, the last one – called Pool Unic – was just couple hundred meters away. And I did not regret going there: somehow it felt very cozy and intimate. Probably because of particular lighting.

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There was an additional benefit from visiting Pool Unic. The lady who run this cenote also had a small shop selling a variety of traditional Mayan ointments and I bought a jar of anti-inflammatory cream.

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And this was the end of my visit to Homun. Tomorrow, I planned to leave for Chuburna – another coastal village with good beaches and thriving fishing industry. More in the next post.

Chuburna: Good Place to Visit and Relax

Honestly, when planning this trip, more than anything, I wanted to spend a good chunk of time on the beach: swimming and sunbathing. The first portion of the “lazy beach life” – Las Coloradas – was more than satisfactory. For concluding days in Yucatan, I have chosen another coastal town called Chuburna. Similarly to Las Coloradas, Chuburna has white sand beaches and good conditions for swimming (no dangerous currents, etc.). Also – like Las Coloradas – Chuburna is situated on a very narrow peninsula facing Gulf of Mexico on one side and lagoon (formed by the river estuary) on the other. Yet, it is more developed than Las Coloradas, because of its proximity to Chelem and Progresso – two towns which are very popular with expats living there (especially, Canadians) and numerous Mexican tourists. Hence, when you go to the beaches in Chuburna, you will almost inevitably see either other people

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Or some sort of beach-front houses.

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Speaking of these (relatively recently built) seafront homes, some of them were quite interesting. Look at this one (the picture is taken from the opposite to the beach side): it looks almost like a small fortress (or bunker) with solid metal fences, massive walls and no windows. I wonder who live there?

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I was very happy with my accommodations. Through AirBnB, I found this cheerful pink cottage surrounded by lush tropical vegetation. It had a sense of peaceful seclusion and yet it was only 4-5 min. of walk to the beach. And for $20 a day, it was a real steel. Further, when booking it, I did not realize how lucky I was with my hostess, Martha. I will say a few words about her later.

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Unlike more touristy Chelem and Progresso, Chuburna has very limited selection of shops and places to eat. But one restaurant definitely stands out in both variety of seafood-based dishes and their quality. It is called Christo Ray and is run by an extended family which includes both fishermen (hence, the reliable supply of high quality fish and other seafoods) and people who actually manage the restaurant.



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Here are just two small fragments from their menu (divide all prices by five in order to get price in US $)

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Speaking of seafood, Chuburna (and neighboring towns) is one of the best areas in Mexico for getting fresh pulpo (octopus) which is my favorite. Not surprisingly, while in Chuburna, I ordered almost every night some octopus-based dish. And they all were inevitably good.

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Octopus ceviche (cooked octopus marinated in lime juice with onions and cilantro) plus a portion of “kebee con camarons” (like small meatless burgers stuffed with shrimps).
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Pulpo en escabeche: octopus cooked with various vegetables in vinegar (very tender and tasty)
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Pulpo a la Veracruz: octopus cooked slowly with olives and tomatoes.
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Aquapimiento con camaron: raw shrimps marinated in blend of lime juice, onions, cucumbers, and (plenty) of jalapenos. Spicy, but very flavorful.

There was one interesting meeting in Chuburna. One day, walking on the beach, I found this huge off-road yellow truck.

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Somewhat surprisingly, it had French license plates. So, I approached and began conversation. Long story short, a French family was traveling in this truck from Canada (they brought the truck there by boat from Belgium), through the North, Central and South America. The estimated duration of the entire journey was two years. Here is their website with description of all adventures.

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After three nights in Chuburna, I was laying peacefully on the beach preparing mentally to leave, because my return flight to US was scheduled for the next day.

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And then I got SMS from Volaris (the air-company) informing that my flight was “modified,” but not telling how exactly “modified.” SMS provided both US and Mexican phone numbers to call and obtain all details of the changes. Neither of numbers – when I tried to call – were working numbers. Through Google, I found correct numbers (did Volaris sent wrong numbers on purpose) and yet it has taken about one hour to get an agent on the phone. She explained that my flight has been canceled and changed for one day later. I complained, but was I really unhappy? Not at all: I was glad to extend vacations for one more day. And yet, the day come to say Good Bye to Chuburna, my pink cottage and my wonderful host, Martha.

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Being originally from the capital, Mexico city, Martha lived in different places in Mexico, had a very colorful life and worked in different occupations: aerobics trainer, massage therapist, owner of high-end spa, and much more. Being essentially retired and living in Chuburna, she never “stops:” she is trusted home sitter for wealthy expats and desirable private massage therapist. Needless to say that I used (and enjoyed) her massages. And we also shared couple of dinners sharing our life and travel experiences. Thank you, Martha, for my time in Chuburna!

Last word and advice for Americans returning home from Mexico to the USA and Canada. Both countries require presently a negative COVID test before permitting to board the plane. Don’t worry about it. Both international airports in Yucatan (Cancun and Merida) offer this service. It takes only 30 min. to get results and it cost only about $32. Granted, when heading to airport I was a little nervous, but…it looks that I am good to go home.

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I liked Yucatan and I will be back.

Two Months of Traveling Through the COVID and Five Countries (Turkey, Malta, Germany, Portugal, Spain)

By the end of 2020 September I was exhausted of staying in Berkeley where everything was closed (gyms, restaurants, swimming pools, many stores) and the entire town seemed to be “lifeless,” because the students never returned to the university due to the COVID. Usually this time of year I go somewhere in Europe, because the weather is still nice but the summer tourists crowds are gone. This was not the option, however, because European counties closed their borders for Americans. And having my second, Russian, passport was not helpful either. Among fairly limited options in terms of holiday travel, Turkey (fully open for tourists with no restrictions) appeared to be the best choice. Fast forward. What started as a 10 day trip to Turkey has evolved into more than two months journey through five countries: Turkey, Malta, Germany, Spain and Portugal. I repent: on this trip I was not disciplined enough to write daily posts. What follows is the post-trip summary of the highlights and experiences.

First Country: Turkey. September 28-October 12, 2020.

‘The plan was to fly to Istanbul, meet there my brother (who came from Moscow), pick up the car, and drive to Antalya: essentially exploring the Western coast, but also visiting some places inland. The direct flights from San Francisco were expensive and I chose to transit through Munich, Germany. Wow: as we began our descent, the landscape was so “green” that it felt almost as a spring rather than fall.

I waited four hours in Munich airport (nearly deserted) and then boarded Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul. As we were ready to take off, the captain made repeated announcements about the need to keep “social distance” which was both ridiculous and fun, because the plane was totally full.

I met my brother Vladimir at Istanbul and we drove about about 400 miles / 6 hours to Cesme – a coastal town in Turkey‘s westernmost end, on the tip of peninsula of the same name (about 85 km west of Izmir). It is a popular coastal holiday resort, but rather “low profile” and mostly preferred by Turks – not so much international visitors. The name “Çeşme” means “fountain” and possibly refers to many fountains that are scattered across the city. Cesme is also known for numerous natural hot springs which are used in medical purposes and around which various hotels and and “spa resorts” are built. We stayed couple nights in Cesme Termal Otel and were probably the only foreigners there. Very inexpensive place (about $50 per night for two) with two big and really warm pools (which are cleaned and refilled daily from the natural hot springs) and with possibility to “jump” from the pool into much cooler Aegean sea (the hotel is right on the coast).

Our intention was to find some nice local restaurant, but the food served at the Cesme Termal Otel was soo good that we ended up having all out meals at the hotel. Look, for instance at this “dream breakfast” which was included into the price of accommodations. I “played” half an hour each morning combining various cheeses with different jams and sauces…

There was only one exception from our “eat at the hotel” rule. Turkey has great bakeries with amazing variety of various breads and pastries. One was right opposite our hotel and we stopped there several time a day to try something new. The folks who worked there did not speak anything but Turkish and we essentially pointed out randomly to whatever was appealing: everything tasted great.

The beach at our hotel was Ok, but there was a much better choice nearby: the Delikli Koy Beach. The combination of white sand, limestone formations and deep blue sea made this beach our instant favorite. Besides, if you go there, there is a good chance to meet some interesting people, because this beach attracts hippy-like travelers with their vans and campers.

After two nights in Cesme, we drove to a sacred and mysterious place called Gerga. It is a sanctuary or cult-site hidden in the Latmos Mountains of Caria (also known as Bespark Mountains). This stunning area with its out-of-this-world boulder rock formations is reason enough to plan a hike here. Very little is actually known of Gerga, Various sources of information define Gerga as a ‘Carian-Hellenistic’ village, a necropolis, or a sanctuary, and it may be a bit of all. Walking around, you will find the name of the place over 20 times, carved in the rocks and buildings. The inscriptions are mostly in Greek and Latin, and appear as Gerga, Gergas, and Gergakome. The name is a topic of discussions among researchers. In ‘Two Carian Notes’, Richard P. Harper claims that the name Gerga means “The Sanctuary of Kar”, connecting it to the nearby site of Alabanda and the myth of Alabandos, son of Kar. He also believes that this place has evolved over different centuries, explaining why there are several hypotheses on the name and the nature of this place.

Whatever are the name and the history of this place, its atmosphere is fully absorbing: one can easily stay for hours there. The beauty of Gerga is enhanced by huge ancient trees and shining marble boulders reflecting sun with changing colors.

Finding Gerga and getting there is not easy. But then this is exactly the reason that the place remains untouched and rarely visited. We knew that there is a trail which begins from the mountainous village called Alabayır and the village is easy to reach by car. However, despite having descriptions for finding trailhead, we were totally lost among the houses spread haphazardly on the slopes of the mountain. We ended up knocking on one door and trying to ask for the trailhead location. Without saying a word, an elderly man jumped into our car and began giving driving directions. We were somewhat mystified, because we drove (following his guidance) out of the village and then for several kilometers on barely visible tracks nearly ruining our small rental car. As it turned out, instead of taking to trail head, he directed us to the place right above Gerga (hence, you can also drive there, sort of) and we walked just a few hundred meters down to the site. When we returned later to the village and brought back our “instant guide,” we gave him some money and wanted to leave, but this was not an option. He called his wife and served delicious tea and some snacks. We ended up staying with this couple for over one hour and it felt remarkably comfortable despite the fact that we were absolutely unable to verbally communicate.

Our next destination for the same day was lake Bafa and we arrived there perfectly in time for gorgeous sunset.

I bet you never heard about lake Bafa and, indeed, this place still attracts few tourists except…Germans. Somehow folks from Germany discovered this exceptional area and many of them, in fact, bought houses in the surrounding villages living there some permanently and some a few months a year. What is special about lake Bafa? It combines everything: pristine nature, ancient sites, rock tombs, birds sanctuary, mountains and a beach.

Bafa Gölü (Turkish name) is situated between Milas and Izmir. Besides being a historical site, Bafa is also a Natural Park thanks to the vast variety of wildlife and flowers. The Beşparmak Mountains (5 finger Mountains are an impressive backdrop. Besides the fact that they look as an extensive collection of piled up boulders, they also hide old Greek monasteries and even pre-historical wall paintings. Bafa lake has several islands to which you can take a boat trip, visiting the remains of the monasteries that were built on them. It is hard to describe the atmosphere at Bafa, but the place has a unique vibe and energy. On top of everything, this is an excellent place to experience authentic Turkish village life. We stayed in Kapikiri in the Pansyon (Bed and Breakfast) Yasemin. In fact, we had our very own and nicely restored traditional house.

We would come to Pansyon itself (just 50 meters away) for our breakfasts and dinners which were included into price and which were inevitably delicious.

The fun “social part” of the meals served at the Pansyon Yasemin was that it also functioned as a local “restaurant” (with very good reputation for quality of cooking) where one can observe the locals rubbing shoulders with German expats living in the area.

Pansyon Yasemin is owned by a local fellow: Adil Duran. He bought and beautifully restored several houses in his home village and launched a full-fledged local tourist business. In addition to offering comfortable accommodations and delicious meals, Adil is also an excellent tour guide who takes people to various historical and natural sites: some local and some quite distant (of course, he can arrange transportation as well). Needless to say that I and my brother used his services and greatly enjoyed our time together with Adil.

The current village Kapıkırı is built on the remains of what used to be the ancient city of Herakleia. Our full-day tour with Adil around the lake (first hiking and then taking a boat) included both impressive historical sites and beautiful natural spots.

It was a long and outstanding day. But then we returned to Kapikiri and spent pre-sunset hour simply enjoying the very peaceful lake and village atmosphere.

Next morning it was time to say “Good Bye!” to Adil and his wife who literally “adopted” us into family for these two days.

After leaving Kapikiri, we drove just a few kilometers to Golyaka village – the place where the hiking trail to Yediler Monastery (also known as “Seven Monastery” and “Kellibaron Monastery”) begins. In short, if you like stunning (and easy) hikes to magical places, then put Yediler Monastery on your Turkey bucket list! Yediler Monastery is a Byzantine-era monastery located in the sacred Latmos Mountains. It is believed that the monastery complex was established in the late 10th century, with more structures added later and fully completed in the 13th century. The monastery complex was enclosed by walls, some of which are still standing today. You will find remains of two chapels, a cave with an apse (arguably also used as a chapel in the southeastern side of the big courtyard), a well preserved and well protected upper castle, vaulted cell rooms and much more. For me, however, most important was not archeological or architectural value of this monastic complex, but the entire setting with the boulder-dotted Latmos Mountains as a background and Lake Bafa and its islands as a backdrop. 

Despite temptation to linger longer at Yediler monastery, we needed to go with Datca peninsula being our final destination for the day. Datça is the place where Mediterranean and Aegean seas meet each other. And it is also the place where one will find the beauty of coastal Turkey in all its aspects: pine forests, dramatic cliffs, deep blue sea, excellent beaches, pristine hidden coves and much more. Driving around Datça peninsula is an experience on its own: almost all drives are scenic, whether you take the coastal route or one of the small and narrow mountain roads.

Most visitors to Datca go to visit Knidos – the ruins of an ancient Greek city situated at the very tip of Datca peninsula, exactly at the “meeting point” of Aegean and Mediterranean seas. It is, indeed, an impressive archeological site. But it would have taken a good part of our only one day in Datca and, therefore, we decided to skip Knidos. Instead, we hiked to Aquarium beach (Akvaryum Koyu in Turkish). Aquarium beach is located in pristine, well protected (from waves) and difficult to reach cove. The easiest way to get there is by boat and in summer time many local tourist operators bring there visitors to enjoy the scenery, swimming and sunbathing. We visited Datca in early October and the tourist season was over. So, how to get to Akvaryum Koyu without a boat? We drove to Cennetkoy Beach and Restaurant. From there, a narrow and rocky path will first take you up the hill, then it will zigzag along coastal line, and finally it will “drop” into Aquarium Beach. The path is not well marked and initially we took a wrong turn and hiked about 40 min. in wrong direction. But…who cares, when the air smells of pine forest and the scenery is like this:

Eventually, we found right way and approached the cove. Yes, hard to believe, but it is down below and there is a way to get there.

When we arrived, the whole place was “for us only,” but then a very serious visitor arrived: a private mega-yacht.

Despite the size of the boat (and obviously some crew onboard), only two persons appeared and “descended” into the sea: a woman (in yellow kayak ) and a man. And then…I have never seen such a “device” before: it looked like a surfboard, but with some sort of powerful motor which kept the man literally flying above the sea.

And this was pretty much our lazy day in beautiful Datca…

After Datca peninsula, our next destination was Kabak Valley – a great place on the coast, south of Fethiye and Oludeniz: a bit later I will tell more about Kabak Valley. But first and en route we decided to visit Dalyan – the coastal town in Mugla province, between Marmaris and Fethiye. Dalyan attracts plenty of tourists and there are at least three reasons for this. The first is Iztuzu beach – a narrow and long (4.5 km) spit of land, which forms a natural barrier between the fresh water delta of the Dalyan river and Mediterranea sea. Hence, when visiting the beach, you can take a nice swim in both salt and fresh water. But the most important thing about Iztuzu beach is that it is one of the main breeding grounds for loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta). Therefore, it is also often referred to as Turtle Beach. The second reason to visit Dalyan are the ruins of the ancient trading city of Kaunos and Lycian tombs dating back to circa 400 BC. Their facades are cut into the sheer cliffs above Dalyan river which is the third reason to visit Dalyan. Indeed, the river flows through the town and then splits into many channels surrounded by swamps and forming the river’s delta. Taking a small ferry boat from Dalyan is the best way to check out all three major attractions: to visit Iztuzu beach, to see the facades of the tombs and simply enjoy the ride through the swamps and channels. We decided to splurge and, instead of going with the group of other tourists, hired our very own vessel.

I was frankly disappointed with the beach: too crowded to my taste despite the fact that it was off tourist season, but the boat ride itself was very (!) pleasant.

And the view of the facades of the Lycian tobs was a nice “icing on the cake.”

Back on the road, we headed for Kabak Valley. Kabak is a relatively little-known paradise some 15km south of famous Ölüdeniz. It is too small to be called a village – more like a beach-colony. People come here for stunning views, nice beach, and the laid-back atmosphere. Hippie folks, yoga folks, any alternative life-style folks – you will find all of them in Kabak. Getting into Kabak Valley is part of adventure. Unless you have a powerful jeep, you need to leave the car in parking area above the valley and then either hike down or ask your accommodations to send four-wheel auto to pick you up.

In terms of places to stay, Kabak has all: boutique mini-hotels, boho camping and simply glamping sites. There are only few restaurants, but most accommodations prepare decent (and some – excellent) meals. We stayed at Kabak Valley Camp – a smattering of very simple bungalows plus the main terrace-like building with restaurant on the first floor and relax/viewing area on the second. And the view was indeed great

I found Kabak Valley Camp via AirBnB and – despite apparent simplicity of accommodations – was instantly attracted by many reviews praising the welcoming feel of this place and genuine hospitality of the owner. Turhan (the owner) is one of the old-timers in Kabak. He opened his camp 15 years ago and at that time there were only three places to stay in Kabak. I never regretted this choice: the food was delicious, people working at camp took great care of the guests, and Turhan himself turned out to be a delightful and very interesting person to talk to. Turhan is in the middle on the picture below.

We stayed here three nights and could very easily spend all time simply hanging around as most visitors to Kabak do (in fact, some remain there for weeks). But there were two destinations on our bucket list: both easily doable from Kabak. The first was a hike to what is called “hidden waterfalls.” They are located well above Kabak Valley and to get there you first drive to Lissiya hotel, park there and then hike (the trail is relatively easy to find). Essentially, it is a half-day adventure. The waterfalls are absolutely delightful.

And the entire hike to the waterfalls was one perfect view after another.

There was also a little bit of mystery encountered during this hike. Right next to the trail and literally in the middle of nowhere we found a well kept and apparently frequently visited (there were some folding chairs next to it) grave. I tried to find out who this person was, but without any luck.

The second destination to explore from Kabak valley is more distant: it will take one and half hour to drive to the impressive ruins of ancient Pinara. Pinara was one of the six principal cities of Lycia and it is perched high up on a mountain. Despite its size and beauty, Pinara remains off the beaten path destination and is typically overlooked by people traveling to Turkey and visiting nearby Xanthos. No one else was there when I and my brother visited Pinara. After driving up the twisting road, the discrete signs opposite the parking lot are the only indication that something might be worth seeing. A small walking path takes to the entrance of the cities’ necropolis, hidden behind a forest. Pinara combines picture-perfect panoramas over Xanthos valley with the remains of temples, a theater and hundreds of tombs. Old olive and fig trees, plus the pines filling the air with their fragrance create an amazing natural setting.

We stayed three nights in Kabak Valley and the highlight of each day was the evening swim under the sunset.

Back on the road after Kabak, we headed further south along the coast. A couple of hours later we arrived at famous Kaputas Beach. Indeed, its sand is super fine and the waters are super transparent, but (similarly to Iztuzu beach) it was too crowded for me.

A few more hours on the road and we were in the village of Cirali. It was time to part with my brother: Vladimir needed to go back home. Next day we drove to Antalya (about 80 miles / 120 kilometers) where he took a plane to Moscow. But I returned and stayed four more days in Cirali because of one special reason (about which I will write later). Regardless of this particular reason, however, Cirali is a very good place to spend a few days or even the entire vacations. The village is close to the well-known and upscale resort towns of Kemer and Tekirova, but it is much more low-profile and laid back. There are no giant resort hotels in Cirali: accommodations are bungalows (some are quite boutique though), cabins, tree houses or simply campsites. In short, Çıralı is the perfect escape from hectic and noisy resort towns and it is also your ultimate cocktail of sea, sand, mountains, and some major cultural attractions!

First, the beach:  Cirali beach (or Çıralı in Turkish) is a glorious (long and wide) stretch of sand adjacent to Olympos ancient site with scenic mountains as a backdrop.

Second, Cirali is the place where you will find the remains of the ancient city of Olympos – one of the six largest cities of the Lycian League along with XanthosPataraPınaraTlos, and Myra. You can easily visit the site simply by walking to the Southern end of Cirali beach.

The natural setting of Olympos is so pretty that the whole visit feels like one long-stretched wow-effect. You will find explanatory boards near ruins and buildings, but there is no suggested path to systematically walk through the city: simply wander around and discover many houses and temples – some in the plain view and some hidden in the lush vegetation. In short, Olympos is a deliciously enchanting site to discover because of combination of location, a variety of ruins and antiquities and the untouched natural surroundings.

One more thing that should be on your list when visiting Çıralı is a night hike up Mount Chimera (also spelt Chimaera) to see Yanartaş flames. These eternal flames on a rocky mountainside above the ruins of the temple of Hephaistos are a fascinating natural phenomenon: they are emitting from the rocks with no apparent fuel to sustain them. In reality, the flames are burning  methane gas that has been venting from the earth on this rocky slope for thousands of years. In ancient times, mariners passing by the coast below used the bright flames as a landmark on their voyage. These flames inspired the Greek myth of Bellerophon and the Chimaera. Predictably, each night many people go there to “camp” around the flames. You will not find this place for yourself only, but it is definitely worth visiting.

Despite being a low-profile tourist destination, Cirali offers a very good selection of restaurants with both international and traditional Turkish cuisines. My favorite was the place called Ceylan Cafeterya. Here is the picture of one of the dinners at this restaurant. The nicely marinated and grilled calamari were exquisite, the selection of local cheeses was impressive, but I was most impressed by the desert which I never tried before. It is called Kanafeh (or Kunefe). Kanafeh is sweet and savory cheese pastry. It is made from a stretchy, unsalted fresh melting cheese called hatay foun – mozzarella would be the closest Western analogue. The cheese is coated in syrup-soaked and shredded phyllo dough and fried until crisp. Its appeal is the contrasting textures of the crunchy exterior against the soft, melty interior. It can be topped with pistachios or ice cream—or simply eaten on its own, preferably while still piping hot.

I stayed in Cirali in a very unassuming place called Chimera Camping & Bungalows. In fact, there were only two bungalows (I had one): most of place was occupied by people who camped in their own tents. I loved the vibe and location of Chimera Camping instantly. An additional pleasant surprise was delicious food prepared upon request by the mother of camping’s owner. I did not go to eat out one evening and wonderful home made meal was delivered to the doorsteps of my cabin.

Chimera Camping is just two minutes away (by walking) from the beach and I went there every morning for sunrise (left) and evening for sunset (right).

Believe it or not, but I brought a “piece of Cirali experiences” back home to California. And here is how it happened. I love massage and found in Cirali a good place run by young but very experienced massage therapist named Birkan Arslan. The walls in his house were decorated with many water colour paintings and I asked who the author is. Turned out that he has a girlfriend who is professional opera singer (leading soprano) in Antalya opera. However, as many genuinely talented persons, she is also good at drawing and painting. I asked to meet Merig Karatas (her name). She told me that she never sold any of her works, but simply gave them away as presents. I loved in particular one of her works inspired by old French movie “The Red Balloon” and…I became a first person who bought her painting.

This is the end of the story of the visit to first (Turkey) of the five countries on this two months long journey. Recall, I mentioned earlier that there was one particular reason to stay longer in Cirali? The thing is that this summer and fall the holders of American passports were not allowed to visit European countries due to COVID restrictions. But I found an interesting legal loophole to get there. Malta (which is part of European Union and “borderless” Shengen zone) recognizes Turkey as a “safety corridor” and allows to enter Malta after you spent 14 days in Turkey. And so my ticket to Malta was booked for October 12. But this will be the next story.

Second Country: Malta. October 12-14, 2020

I have never been before to Malta and, probably, wouldn’t go there, if not for the reason I already wrote about: Malta was for me a “gate” into Europe. Americans can currently visit Malta after two weeks spent in Turkey, and then – because Malta is part of borderless European Shengen zone – they can proceed to other European countries (which otherwise “closed” their doors for the holders of American passport because of COVID). Technically, I could change planes the same day and fly out of Malta right away, but I decided to stay for couple of days and explore. This was 100% right decision. In fact, I could use more time and see more things on this tiny island nation in Mediterranean sea which is situated about 80 km / 50 miles south of Italy. Malta consists of three inhabited islands (Malta, Gozo, Comino) with about half million total population and the territory of 316 sq km / 122 sq mi. The first appearance of Malta’s capital, Valetta, from the air was quite pleasant.

Before going to Malta, I learned a few things about this country which could be useful for other travelers. The national language here is Maltese, which has descended from Sicilian Arabic, while English serves as the second official language. Italian (especially, its Sicilian version) also previously functioned for centuries as official and cultural language and a majority of the current Maltese population can converse in Italian.

Malta has been inhabited since approximately 5900 BC. Its location in the center of the Mediterranean had historically great strategic importance as a naval base. Accordingly, during centuries and millennia Malta has changed hands many times. The rulers of Malta included the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Aragonese, Knights of St. John, French, and, finally, British Empire (Malta was British colony since 1813). Malta gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1964: first as the State of Malta with Queen Elizabeth II as its nominal head and then, in 1974, as a republic. Consequently, all these foreign influences have left their marks on the country’s population and culture.

Having only two days in Malta, the choice of where to stay was obvious: in capital, Valetta. Valetta – with about 7,000 inhabitants and the territory of 0.61 square kilometers – is the smallest capital city of the European Union. It may be the smallest in size, but it is also one of the prettiest European cities that I have seen. Many of Valletta’s 16th-century buildings were constructed by the Knights Hospitaller. Overall, the city is Baroque in character, with elements of other architectural styles. In 1980, UNESCO recognized Valletta as a World Heritage Site. Valletta is also somewhat similar to San Francisco as it is built on several hills and one can see the sea from many places and streets.

The historical military importance of Malta is also very visible in Valetta’s: you will find here a lot of fortifications consisting  of bastionscurtains and cavaliers.

Quite frankly, however, this military architecture is not my cup of tea. But I totally felt in love with traditional ornamental Maltese balconies.

I mentioned that Valletta itself is fairly small, but it is only a part of a much larger surrounding urban area consisting of several other towns. Geographically, Valletta is a finger-like peninsula. To visit other adjacent towns (and they are worth visiting, because each has a very unique character and charm), the best option is to take one of the ferry boats. In fact, if you look at the map of Valletta and its surroundings, the whole area is somewhat similar to Venice. To the west of Valletta are Sliema and Gzira.

And to the east of Vallletta are Vittoriosa, Senglea and Conspicua which are known under one name “Three Cities of Malta.”

Predictably, local tour operators offer numerous harbor excursions by boat, sunset cruises, etc. Don’t waste your money. Simply take various regular ferry boats: they circulate frequently from early morning till midnight and – for couple Euros – you will get a lot of fun and scenery.

By the end of the day, after exploring Valletta and the nearby towns, I was very hungry. The good news is that Valletta has plenty of good and very affordable (by American standards) restaurants. I went to the place called King’s Own Band Club. And indeed, it is both a restaurant and sort of local neighborhood club. While enjoying the dinner, I observed the local social scene. The food choices for this evening were obvious. I love octopus and Malta is a good place to have fresh octopus. But Malta is also known for various rabbit-based dishes. Accordingly, as appetizer I have chosen rabbit liver cooked in sherry wine.

My plan for the second day in Malta was very ambitious: I had in mind three very different destinations. But first about the question of “how to get around.” Unless you plan to spend a lot of time in rural areas and on country side, I do NOT recommend renting a car. That is for several reasons. First, adopting British system, Maltese folks drive on the “wrong side” of the streets. Second, there are a lot of cars in Malta and the roads (especially in towns) could be congested. Third, parking in popular tourist destination could be a nightmare. I traveled around Malta using three ways of transportation. First, Malta has very extensive public bus system which “penetrates” all parts of the island. After downloading the local bus App on smartphone, navigating this bus network was easy. Second, Malta has rider sharing service called Bolt which is similar to Uber except that you pay drivers in cash (but the price is indicated in advance as it is with Uber). Bolt is affordable and given small size of Malta, I used it without second thought whenever waiting for bus was too long. Third and finally, twice I was in situations without Internet connection on the phone and could not use Bolt or inquire about buses. On both occasions I hitchhiked and it was easy.

First destination were Dingli Cliffs, a dramatically beautiful area in southern part of the island. I spent there couple hours simply walking and absorbing scenery.

After Dingli Cliffs, I went to Rabat. The town has interesting church and secular architecture, but it is especially known for catacombs of St. Paul and of St. Agatha. These catacombs were used in Roman times to bury the dead as, according to Roman culture, it was unhygienic to bury the dead in the city. The Catacombs of St. Paul is the place where Apostle Paul stayed for three months when he was shipwrecked on the island in 60 A.D.

Christianity was brought to Malta by Apostle Paul and he is regarded as one of three official patron Saints of Malta (the other two are St. Agatha and St. Publius). According to tradition, St. Paul was being taken to Rome to be tried as a political rebel, but the ship carrying him and some 274 others was caught in a violent storm and wrecked on the Maltese coast. All aboard swam safely to land.

The welcome given to the survivors by the locals is described in the Acts of the Apostles (XXVIII) by St. Luke: “And later we learned that the island was called Malta. And the people who lived there showed us great kindness, And they made a fire and called us all to warm ourselves… “ As the fire was lit, Paul was bitten by a poisonous snake but he suffered no ill effects. The islanders took this as a sign that he was a special man. This scene is depicted in many religious art works in Malta. Then, the Apostle took refuge in a cave, now known as St. Paul’s Grotto in Rabat. During his winter stay, he was invited to the house of Publius, the Romans’ chief man on Malta. Paul cured Publius’ father of a serious fever. Publius then have converted to Christianity and was made the first Bishop of Malta. The fact is that Malta was one of the first Roman colonies to convert to Christianity. 

My last destination for the day was Meridiana Wine Estate. Wine – as pretty much everywhere in Mediterranean area – was produced in Malta for centuries, but until recently the quality of Maltese wines was mediocre. Regrettably, most tourists interested in tasting Maltese wines still end up in Marsovin Winery in Valletta which is the largest wine producer on the island. However, being largest Marsovin is definitely not the best. I opted to visit Meridiana, because – established in mid 1990s – it has pioneered the production of premium quality wines. And I was not disappointed – not at all.

The next day I was planning to fly to Germany to visit several friends. They all appreciate good red wines. And so I left Meridiana Wine Estate with a few bottles of Fenici – a delicious blend of Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah grapes.

Third Country: Germany. October 14-October 30, 2020.

Germany is the country which I visit regularly and know well. I speak German and have many friends there. Hence, my travels to this country are not so much for “sightseeing,” but primarily for getting together and having fun with friends and relatives. Nevertheless, here are a few memories from the most recent trip which could be interesting for the readers of this blog. My favorite airport to arrive to Germany is Munich. If you fly from the south (as I flew from Malta), you will enjoy truly gorgeous scenery from the window of your plane: the Alps.

I have a Russian-German cousin who lives near Munich: Olga Boehme. Being originally from Russia, Olga married a German fellow. Now the entire family (Olga, Olaf and two lovely kids, Yasmin and Alex) lives in Erding, a suburb of Munich which is internationally known for Erdinger Therme, the world’s largest spa, thermal resort and sauna paradise.

By the way, if you are interested in various “alternative healing practices,” take a look at Olga’s work: www.light-land.com She works both with German and international clients/patients and uses a variety of methods to help people to deal with their health issues. Anyway, I met Olga and her cheerful daughter Yasmin and we drove 6 hours to one of my very favorite historical German towns, Bacharach am Rhine. As the name suggests, it is located on the bank of the Rhine river (frequently referred to by Germans as “Father Rhine”). Bacharach is one of the best preserved medieval towns in Germany. It has also dramatically beautiful natural setting: in the Rhine Gorge (Upper Middle Rhine Valley) and near mysterious Lorelei Rock. Bacharach is surrounded by vineyards and it is one of the best places in Germany to enjoy and buy high quality German Riesling wines (Riesling is my favorite white wine varietal).

Predictably, Bacharach has many “Wein Stuben” (wine cellars) where you can enjoy local wines and traditional regional dishes. But relatively few of them offer big choice of wines by the glass (without purchasing the entire bottle). If you like to try several Rieslings (from various producers and vintages) and in a very cozy atmosphere, go to a place called Kurpfaelzische Muenze: this is the place where the locals go as well.

Yasmin, Olga and me.

I come to Bacharach regularly since 1993, but there is always something new in the town. This time I discovered a newly erected interesting monument. Honestly I do not see much connection between these three poets (Heinrich Heine, Victor Hugo and Clemens Brentano), but the sculpture definitely looks very cheerful and inviting to join for a glass of wine.

From Bacharach, you can explore many historical medieval towns and other tourist attractions located on and near Rhine river. You can do this by car, local railway (two lines go along the river on both sides of Rhine) or, in summer time, by cruise boat. As a day trip, we went to Ruedesheim am Rhein, another well-preserved wine-making town in the Rhine Gorge. By the way, in 2002, UNESCO designated Rhine Gorge (Upper Middle Rhine Valley) as a world heritage site for a unique combination of geological, historical, cultural and industrial reasons. Perhaps, the major attraction near Ruedesheim is Niederwalddenkmal (Niederwald Monument) – a giant (38 meters / 125 ft) statue built in 1871-1883 in order to commemorate the Unification of Germany and the founding of the German Empire.

Even if you don’t care about German history and sculptures, Niederwalddenkmal is worth visiting simply for the commanding view of Rhine Valley.

You can hike to Niederwalddenkmal, but much more fun and scenic option is to take Seilbahn (gondola lift) from Ruedesheim. And this was what I and Olga (on picture) did.

Niderwalddenkmal is located on the top of the hill of the same name (Niederwald) and at the edge of the dense forest of oak and beech. There is a very pleasant and short (2 km) hiking trail through the forest which leads to another chairlift. This one will take you down to another charming town called Assmannhausen.

Assmannhausen is only 5 km away from and is connected by rail with Ruedesheim. Our car was parked in Ruedesheim and we took a short train ride to return there. But…not right away. We were hungry and a little bit cold. What is the best remedy? A piece of warm traditional “Apfelkuchen” (Apple pie) in a local Baekerei (Backery).

After Bacharach, my next destination was Pfalz (also known as Palatinate) – the region in southwestern Germany on the borders with French Alsace. If someone would ask what is my favorite part of Germany, the answer would be “Definitely Pfalz.” I love here abundance of small cozy towns (each having some sort of annual festival) and medieval castles (some in ruins and some fully intact), excellent and diverse wines (the famous German Wine Route – or Deutsche Weinstraße – passes through the Pfalz), very distinct Pfalz cuisine, and, of course, the nature. One-third of Pfalz is covered by the Palatinate Forest (Pfälzerwald) which is Europe’s largest contiguous forested area. Pfalz is also real paradise for people who love hiking and cycling.

Having a number of good friends in Pfalz, I headed first to see the family of Wilker. Monika and Juergen have a winery (Weingut Wilker) situated in the small town Pleisweiler Oberhofen and with truly deep historical roots: the building of winery dates back to 1597. If you are not sure what type of wines/grape varietals you like, make sure to visit Wilker’s winery for tasting, because they produce great variety of wines: both whites and reds. I have known Wilkers for over a decade and observed their two daughters (Emily and Antonia) growing and becoming first teenagers and then beautiful girls. During this visit, only Antonia was home, because Emily went to the USA on high-school exchange program. An interesting aspect of this fact is that despite new COVID rules which ban Europeans (including university students) from entering USA, this high-school exchange program was exempt from restriction. And here are remaining “three-quarters of the family.”

From the left to right: Antonia, Juergen and Monica.

Both Wilkers and I love good food and we all love to cook. Predictably and as always, we spent some certain portion of our time together preparing and sharing delicious meals.

It was already late October when wines are turning into red and gold and when hiking through the vineyards is almost like visiting art gallery which specializes in landscape paintings.

Monica proudly showed me her new big project: planted recently – and quite sizeable – fruit garden. I asked her what type of trees does she have and how selection was made. The answer was interesting. Apparently, the local state authorities would give you for free seedlings and even assist with planting under one condition: there should be certain – defined by them – combination of various plants. The idea is to create a healthy and self-supporting ecosystem. Hopefully, on the next visit, I will sample not only Wilker’s great wines but also their very own fruits.

Only about 50 km (35 miles) away from Pleisweiler Oberhofen there is another Pfalz town called Forst an der Weinstrasse, where I have good old friends: Katja and Michael. The area where they live has many interesting and visually very appealing hiking trails and we used good weather and enjoyed being outdoors as much as possible. One day they took me to the place called “Fuerstenlager” near town of Bensheim. It is a big park and formerly the estate and summer residence of the Grand Duke of Hesse