A Week in the Second Smallest African Nation: Sao Tome and Principe

My trip to Cabo Verde in December 2021 was a great success. And I decided to check out another former Portuguese colony in Africa: Sao Tome and Principe. An island nation, it is located off the western coast of Central Africa and right on equator. In fact, many tourists to Sao Tome make a point to travel to this geographic divide, and take a picture while standing on equatorial lane with two feet being in two different hemispheres. As the name suggests, the country consists of two islands: São Tomé (main island) and Príncipe (much smaller in size) which are about 150 km (93.21 mi) apart. On my trip, I visited only “bigger brother,” the island of Sao Tome.

With the territory of 1,000 sq kilometers (386 sq miles) and population of just above 200,000 São Tomé and Príncipe is the second-smallest and second-least populous African nation after Seychelles.

The islands were uninhabited until their discovery by Portuguese in the 15th century. Gradually settled, they first simply served as a center for the Atlantic slave trade. Later on, thanks to the rich volcanic soil and proximity to the equator, São Tomé and Príncipe developed lucrative plantation economy producing sugar, coffee and cocoa. Today, the ruins of many “rocas” (former plantation estates) are popular destination for visitors to Sao Tome. Here are a few which are worth checking out: rocas of Agua Ize, Sao Joao de Angolares and Bombaim.

Full independence from Portugal was peacefully achieved in 1975. Today, São Tomé is widely regarded as a free democratic country with high level of political freedoms and freedom of speech. Bad news is that after gaining independence, in 1970-80s, Sao Tome was heavily supported economically by the countries of Communist block: with Soviet Union and Eastern Germany in the first place. As Communist system crumbled and Soviet Union broke apart, this support stopped. The centrally directed (“Communist style”) economy, with most means of production owned and controlled by the state, turned out to be inefficient. The country went into long period of economic stagnation and uncertainty. On a positive side, clealry, Sao Tome has great potential for tourism and it is a very safe and attractive country to travel.

The people of Sao Tome are predominantly of African and mestiço descent. The legacy of Portuguese rule is visible in the country’s language (Portuguese is state language, with French being also widely spoken) and culture which fuses European and African influences. The climate of Sao Tome is tropical: hot and humid. The rainy season is from October to May, and, in order to avoid it, I came here in June.

Speaking of “coming here,” most direct international flights connect Sao Tome with Portugal, Angola and Gabon. My choice was obvious: 4 hours flight from Lisbon by Tap Portugal. The first appearance of the country from the window of the plane was quite pleasant: it was some small island, part of Sao Tome archipelago, with a lighthouse on top of it.

We landed and the first impression was that the main international airport of the country looked very “humble.”

T took a picture, hurried to immigration officer, gathered luggage and in less than 30 min. was out of the airport.

First minutes in Sao Tome

A pre-arranged driver was waiting outside to take me to the first destination: a small resort, on the coast, 15 miles southeast of Sao Tome city which is called “Nge D’ Ai EE” or “Center D’Aqui Nge” (you can easily Google both names). It was dark and late, when I arrived, but the expertly prepared dinner was served and waiting: octopus Portuguese style – one of my very favorite dishes.

There were no other visitors this night at the resort, and the cute kitten made a great company through my dining al fresco (the restaurant is like a big open gazebo).

Next morning, on the same table, I found beautifully arranged “tropical breakfast” which was accompanied by the locally grown coffee. Speaking of the latter, coffee is an excellent choice to bring as a gift from Sao Tome.

After breakfast, I finally had a chance to meet and chat with the owner of the place: Celia. Celia is an expat from Portugal who has deep love for Sao Tome and is passionate to introduce visitors to its culture, nature and people. A successful businesswoman with international experiences of work and life, she discovered Sao Tome by chance a few years ago. On her first visit, Celia found and loved the sleepy coastal village of Agua Ize (where her resort was later built) and decided to stay there for a while. She “mingled” with locals (which is culturally not always an easy task), felt more and more “at home,” and, eventually bought property and settled there. Then she realized that by developing her property into a small resort, she can not only make some money, but also generate income for a local community by bringing tourists to this picturesque corner of the island and offering locals some jobs.

Celia, the owner of the Center D’Aqui Nge

If someone would ask me to describe Center D’Aqui Nge in just two words, I would say “humble and gorgeous.” “Humble,” because bungalows are comfortable but – by Western standards – simple (no air-conditioning or hot water). “Gorgeous”, because both property and surrounding nature are visually very appealing. Here are couple pictures from the grounds of the Center D’Aqui Nge.

Celia’s place is also right next to one of the most popular tourist attractions on Sao Tome: Boca do Inferno or Hell’s Mouth. Roca do Inferno is a product of coastal erosion by the ocean which resulted in strange rock formations, passages, and sea caves. When the waves hit shoreline, they funnel powerfully through these caves and vertical shafts and produce impressive fountains from the apertures of the shafts and mighty howling sounds. Unfortunately, when I was there, the sea was calm and I did not see the “show.”

Boca do Inferno

And one more “praise” for Center D’Aqui Nge. If you are a person with love for good local food, this is the place to be. Both Celia and her local employees can cook expertly, present dishes nicely, and take into account visitors’ requests and preferences. One of my greatest food “adventures on Sao Tome” was “calulu.” It is a hearty stew prepared with fresh or dry fish and shrimps. Other ingredients include okra, onions, tomatoes, eggplants, and finely chopped greens such as leaves of sweet potato or cassava. Cooking calulu is a long ordeal: it takes several hours. Hence, I was very pleased when Celia prepared this Sao Tomean delight. I know, the picture does not look very appetizing, but calulu was very tasty…

Calulu, the quintessential dish of Sao Tome

The first day I did not go anywhere and spent most time on a nearby beach called Praia Ize. Google maps give it only 3.9 stars, but I loved it. First, it is a truly local beach which is mostly used by the fishermen to launch their boats and it does not attract any tourists. Second, it is situated in a well protected cove: the waters are calm, shallow and warm.

Praia Ize

Third, the beach is wide and sand is fine and clean.

Finally, I love to observe the local social life and Praia Ize is a great place for this. Fishermen going in and returning form the ocean, village’ families having their picnics on weekends, or teenagers passing by on the way from school to home.

Early afternoon. Kids go home from the school.

In the early evening, little kids from the village started to show up and attempt to socialize with me regardless of linguistic barrier.

Sunset on Praia Ize

By the time of sunset, I returned home, but instead of taking shortcut through the village, made a small loop: walked to highway, along the road, and then back to Celia’s resort. While walking along the road, I saw first (but definitely not last) time the typical “laundry process” on Sao Tome. Clothes, beddings, everything were washed in creeks and streams. Just lake that:

Laundry process in Sao Tome

Most people come to Sao Tome first of all because of the beaches. And, indeed, there are plenty of them and they are quite different: some more accessible and some more remote; some with calm waters and some rather “wavy” being good option for surfers; some fairly deserted and some with bustling social life. And so, the next day was the day of beach hoping: checking out several of them, all along the East coast and to the South of Center D’Aqui Nge. First stop was Praia das Sete Ondas – the Beach of Seven Waves. This one is right next to the highway and attracts plenty of visitors. It also has decent bar/cafe.

Bar on Praia das Ondas

When I first arrived, it was right after the rain and the beach was deserted. But in one hour or so, the local young folks started to come in sizeable groups. Clearly it was one of these beaches with abundant social life.

Praia das Sete Ondas

Further South, the next stop was at Praia Micondo. I first saw it from the highway.

Approaching Praia Micondo

Praia Micondo requires a little bit (like half a mile) of driving or hiking on a dirt road. Not a big deal. For me, it was better than Sete Ondas: more private and nicely enclosed in the cove with calm water and surrounding lush vegetation. It looks that there were some fishing activities there, but definitely not recently. These boats and house appeared to be fully abandoned.

Praia Micondo

The last beach of the day was Praia Grande. You would need to make a little more effort to get there from the major highway. In fact, dirty road to it (about 1 mile) was built only recently. Prior to that it would be necessary to hike through the thick rain forest. Praia Grande was my absolute favorite. Wide, clean, scenic and fully deserted.

Praia Grande

The next day was rainy. The only option was to go to the capital, the town of Sao Tome, and check out a few local attractions and some shops. I walked from Center D’Aqui Nge to the coastal highway and waited for minibus which isthe main local public transportation. The minibuses on Sao Tome do not follow particular schedule. Typically, the driver at the station of origin waits until his bus is full or nearly full and then drives to final destination. People can get on and off at any place, but the problem is that often buses remain full all along the route and there is no way that they can take more passengers. This was my case. I waited for an hour, and a few minibuses passed by but none stopped. I ended up hitchhiking which was surprisingly easy. When I arrived to the town, it was around noon, and the streets were full of kids marching from the school back home.

Early afternoon in the capital of Sao Tome

I walked a little bit around and found two great shops. One was bakery called Padaria Moderna I love baked goods, pastries, etc., and this place had wide variety of choices, low prices, and excellent quality of everything what I bought there.

The second shop (and very close to Padaria Moderna) was place called Kua Tela. This is an ultimate destination for any type of handicrafts, souvenirs, and “eatable and drinkable” goods produced in Sao Tome. The prices are a bit higher than at the local producers, but then everything is nicely packed, the staff speaks English, and all what Sao Tome is known for can be found in one place. Physically, it is a rather small shop – just two rooms – but variety of products was impressive, and I spent nearly one hour looking, choosing and buying.

The shelves of Kua Tela store are full of local products and handicrafts

I wrote already that coffee production used to flourish on Sao Tome and – while no longer an important export item – it is still grown there. A fun place to go and to learn more about history of coffee in Sao Tome and to try some freshly prepared brew is “Monte Cafe.” It is old coffee plantation which offers a museum, guided tours, cafe and restaurant. It is located outside of Sao Tome city, in an attractive natural setting and also on the way to popular St. Nicholas Waterfalls. Instead of searching for minibus going in a right direction (which was somewhat challenging task), I simply nailed a taxi and negotiated a price to Monte Cafe. My understanding was that the cab will be for me only, but no. As we drove through the city and its suburbs, driver picked up more and more passengers. I ended up in a car with seven more persons. Here is my best attempt to take a picture of our joint ride.

Taxi “Sao Tome” style

Unfortunately, when we arrived to Monte Cafe a strong rain began. Hence, I did not have a chance to go on a tour through plantation or to continue hike to St. Nicholas waterfalls. But I enjoyed sitting in cafe and sipping hot aromatic coffee.

Monte Cafe: all about coffee in Sao Tome

When I returned to Sao Tome city, it was late afternoon, and the streets were full of cars, scooters and motorbikes: the rush hour began.

I walked through what is considered the central part of the city and along embankment facing the ocean. Neither were particularly appealing.

I found a bus station, spotted a minibus going in a right direction, and then simply waited for about 20 minutes until it was full of passengers

Waiting for minibus to be fully loaded with passengers and cargo

After three nights in Center D’Aqui Nge, the next destination was famous beach called Praia Piscina. I planned to stay there couple nights at a place called Gombela Ecologe. Praia Piscina is situated on the southwestern corner of the island. In order to get there from Center D’Aqui Nge, I needed to go around half the island. Instead of dealing with minibuses, I hired a local driver and used this private ride to see a few sites en route. The first stop was Cascata de Praia Pesqueira – a waterfall which drops into the ocean. It was nice, but nothing too special. Also, the scenery was a bit obstructed by a bunch of local ladies who used waterfall as an excellent spot for laundry.

Cascata de Praia Pesquires

But the panoramic view towards the ocean (with waterfalls being behind me) was truly spectacular.

Back on the highway and shortly after waterfalls, there was a big road-stand offering good variety of handicrafts made out of the local woods. The selection was impressive and prices quite decent.

And then the highway has sort of “disappeared” and the road became more like a country road. At this point, I was glad to be in a four wheel drive – not in the local minibus with – typically – quite bad suspension.

The Southern portion of Hwy 2 on Sao Tome

The speed dropped to about 20 miles per hour and suddenly the magnificent peak Cao Grande – the “postcard symbol” of Sao Tome – came into the view.

Cao Grande, the symbol of Sao Tome

The Pico Cão Grande (in Portuguese: “Great Dog Peak”) is a needle-shaped volcanic peak. Its summit is 663 m (2,175 ft) above sea level. Cao Grande was formed by magma solidifying in the vent of an active volcano. Although the peak rises only 370 meters (1,200 feet) above surrounding terrain, it is difficult to climb, because of the moist moss growing on the rocks and the presence of snakes. The first attempt to conquer Pico Cão Grande was made in 1975 by Portuguese climbers, but it was not until 1991 that a group from Japan finally succeeded. A few more miles and Porto Alegre – the southernmost fishing town in Sao Tome – appeared.

Porto Alegre

The highway 2 ended here and – without stopping in Porto Alegre – we drove a few more miles on a dirt track finally arriving to Gombela Ecolodge

Gombela Ecolodge from the distance
Main building and restaurant at Gombela Ecolodge

Gombela has just a few bungalows. They are simple but new and fairly attractive: both from outside and inside.

The lodge’s territory is sprawling, its grounds and plants are nicely “manicured, and the views are stunning. Combined with remoteness, the resulting vibe is a “small private paradise hidden in the nature.”

My favorite spot at Gombela ecolodge to spend lazy afternoon
Another good place at Gombela to have a picnic with ultimate view

As noted, Gombela is remote. That is, there are no nearby restaurants or shops. At least, not in a walking distance. But the good news is that the staff of the lodge can cook very well. There is no menu: you need to simply discuss (a bit in advance so they can get supplies) what do you want to eat and it will be prepared to your liking. One of their specialties is crab cooked in a curry sauce. I had it for dinner on first evening and it was delicious.

Crab curry, a specialty of Gombela Ecolodge

Breakfast is included in the price of accommodations and although the choices are limited (eggs, toast, marmalade, yogurt, etc.), I was fully satisfied with big plate of various fruits and a pot of local strong coffee. The breakfast was, of course, accompanied by a panoramic ocean view.

Breakfast at Gombela ecolodge

I feel that at this point the reader may ask: “Okey. It is a beautiful place with good food, but is this the main reason to stay at Gombela?” The answer is: “No.” The main reason to spend here couple days is Praia Piscina – the “Pool Beach.” Essentially, Praia Piscina is indeed like a pool which is filled with ocean water, but separated from the sea and waves by the natural wall made of stones and rocks. Surrounded by lush vegetation and clean white sand, it is both very picturesque to see and fun to splash around. And it is right next to Gombela.

Praia Piscina: a natural pool in tropical paradise

If you decide (and you should) to visit Praia Piscina either with a day trip or staying at Gombela, pay attention to the tides. When it is high, the pool is full and great for swimming. But when the tide is low, it is more like a puddle. I was lucky to be there at the high tide and enjoyed Praia Piscina to the fullest.

High tide is a good time to be at Praia Piscina

I stayed two nights at Gombela, but then it was time to say “Good bye!” My big thanks goes to Eajir, who is an on-site manager of the lodge: a very attentive and kind host. If you decide to book Gombela directly (not via Booking etc.), here is Eajir’s cell phone which is on What’s Up: +239-993-4585

Eajir and myself: last minutes at Gombela

Returning from Gombela, I decided yet to try the minibus option. The starting point for the one running along the east coast in north direction was in Porto Alegre. Eajir promised arrange transportation to the bus station and I was not worried. Yet, it was a surprise when – instead of the car – a young fellow came on a light motorbike. First, I was not sure how all my luggage (a suitcase, small backpack, another bag) can be transported. Second, I remembered bumpy dirt trail (from coming to lodge by car) and was somewhat apprehensive of navigating this trail on a heavily loaded motorbike.

My “limo” chauffeur from Gombela to Porto Alegre

Well, the ride was not exactly smooth, but surprisingly efficient and even fun. All three pieces of the luggage and myself were delivered safely to the spot in the town where locals were waiting for minibus.

Nothing is exactly on time in Sao Tome, and – while waiting for the bus – I had plenty of time to observe the street life in this dusty fishermen town. Perhaps, most touching and somewhat troubling, was to see small children helping their families in various heavy chores. Like this small fellow drugging tree trunk.

The sight of working children is common in Sao Tome

Finally, the minibus came. It filled up to capacity and beyond with passengers and luggage, and I was on my way to the destination of this day. Remember, at the beginning of this post, I mentioned “rocas” – old plantations with once stately mansions which are popular destinations for many tourists. While most rocas are in the conditions of decay and dilapidation, a few have been restored and offer visitors upscale accommodations with “colonial ambiance.” Among most known, is Roca de Sao Joao de Angolares.

Roca de Sao Joao des Angolares

The main reason to come here are actually not accommodations as such, but famous multi-course lunches and dinners prepared by Chef Joao, a former cooking show celebrity from Portugal. The description of their meals sounded interesting (creative “fusion” style dishes, made with locally grown ingredients, farm-to-table supply) and I decided to give it a try. Plus, food is served on open terrace with the view of ocean and tropical forest.

Roca is located in the town of the same name (Sao Joao de Angolares), but a bit up the hill from the coast. I booked dinner at roca, but choose to stay in a small hotel-restaurant called Mionga which was right next to the highway and also very close to a local beach. The reviews on Google maps praised Mionga for genuine hospitality, good accommodations with much lower price than at roca, and (!) also outstanding restaurant with owner, Nelitu, being also a main chef. When I arrived in early afternoon, the place was jam-packed with tourists who came here specifically for lunch. The view from restaurant was great and food looked delicious. In fact, I nearly regretted that my dinner is already booked at roca.

The room was also very good: spacious, clean, and nicely decorated.

My room at Mionga Hotel

I had a few hours before dinner at Roca de Sao Joao dos Angolares and walked to the nearby village beach. It was surprisingly clean (no empty bottles, beer cans, cigarette butts), and I decided to stay for a while: to take a swim and also observe local social life.

A good beach near Mionga hotel

In about half an hour I was rewarded with the free sport show: the local guys played soccer and did so quite masterfully.

And then I felt asleep on a warm sand until strange sounds woke me up. A bunch of pigs came to the beach and were “roaming” around strange lying object – me.

It was getting dark and it was time to go for my fancy dinner at Roca Sao Joao de Angolares. Fast forward, dinner was Okey, but it did not live up to expectations which were based on numerous praising online reviews. I guess it was one more reminder that while traveling it is not a good idea to have any preconceived notion of what we will get or see. Otherwise, the chances of disappointment would be great. On one hand, the service at the dinner was impeccable and the “story” of each dish was interesting. On the other hand, however, some of dishes were fairly boring in terms of flavors, portions were very miniature, and the number of courses smaller than promised. While being somewhat disappointed with food, I greatly enjoyed conversation with Ivan, the manager at Roca Sao Joao de Angolares. A native of Angola, he spent some time studying in former Soviet Union and developed a taste for classic Russian literature. Hence, we ended up discussing virtues of novels and personages by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, etc.

Ivan, manager at Roca Sao Joao de Angolares and literature connoisseur

I woke up early next morning at Mionga hotel and walked downstairs for breakfast. The restaurant was absolutely empty (I was the only overnight guest) and brightly lit by the sun.

Morning at Mionga hotel and restaurant

But the kitchen was busy already: Nelito and his son were getting ready for the coming lunch crowds. I thanked them for hospitality and comfort, and promised to be back for an abundant meal at their restaurant (which I missed this time).

Nelitu, the owner and chef at Mionga hotel, and his son

This was my last full day at Sao Tome. I returned to Celia’s Center D’Aqui Nge and spent most time on a nearby beach.

My last sunset on Sao Tome: low tide, calm waters, and sleepy village of Agua Ize

I asked Celia to cook dinner and decide herself as to what would it be. Somewhat predictably, for this “last supper,” she has chosen my favorite octopus Portuguese style. And I still had a bottle of an excellent dry Riesling made by my German friend, Helmut Darting, a winemaker and owner of vineyard in Pfalz.

Last dinner on Sao Tome.

Seven good days on Sao Tome were over. Will I be back? Perhaps, but may be not: there are always new countries to go. Point is that I was very grateful to everyone who made my time there interesting, rewarding, comfortable, and meaningful. Big thanks goes to Celia, Ejair, Nelitu, Ivan and many other people whom I met in Sao Tome.

Cabo Verde: a Dream for Exploring Tropical Islands

I bet you never heard of Cabo Verde: did you? Also known as “Cape Verde,” it is an archipelago and a country in Atlantic Ocean close to African coast. It consists of ten – amazingly different in terms of landscapes – volcanic islands. They are situated  between 600 to 850 kilometers (320 to 460 nautical miles) west of Senegal and have the total population of about 500,000. The islands were uninhabited until the 15th century, when Portuguese sailors discovered and colonized them.

Thanks to geographic position en route to Americas, Cape Verde played key role in the Atlantic slave trade. But its location attracted not only merchants: the islands also became a heaven for pirates and the so-called “privateers” (essentially, maritime mercenaries). For centuries, various races and ethnicities (mostly Black Africans, Portuguese and French) blended with each other and evolved into a very distinct Creole culture and population. Today, Portuguese is the language of government and instruction in the schools, while the Cape Verdean Creole is an equally recognized national language. To make it clear, Creole is spoken by the vast majority of population, but several attempts to create its universal written form have essentially failed.

In terms of culture, Cabo Verde is probably not “famous” for the literature or fine arts, but people here are well known for their musicality which incorporates African, Portuguese and Brazilian influences. The quintessential national music style is morna, a melancholic and lyrical type of song. The other local music styles are coladeirafunaná and batuqueCesária Évora, the “Queen of Morna,” was the world-known Cape Verdean singer. Nicknamed the “barefoot diva,” she liked to perform barefooted on stage.

Formerly a Portuguese colony, Cape Verde achieved full independence in 1975. Since the early 1990s, it has been a stable representative democracy and one of the most developed and democratic countries in Africa. Lacking natural resources, national economy is largely dependent on remittances from the Cape Verdean diaspora community. In fact, Cabo Verdeans living across the world outnumber significantly the inhabitants on the islands. In the USA, big pockets of Cabo Verdean communities are to be found in several towns in Boston area.

What else a prospective traveler to Cabo Verde should know? The violent crime is virtually non-existent here and the same is true about various “natural dangers:” no poisonous snakes and no need for vaccinations when traveling to Cabo Verde. Country’s warm tropical climate is milder than that of the African mainland, because the surrounding sea moderates temperatures. The islands also do not receive the upwelling (cold streams) that affect West African coast. As a result, the air temperature is cooler than in nearby Senegal, but the ocean is warmer. The islands generally have little precipitation and – except three moderately rainy months (August, September, October) – the chances of visitors to enjoy sunshine and warm sea waters are close to 100%. Of ten islands, two have become a prime “beach destination” for package-style vacations and most tourists: Sal and Boa Vista. And this was exactly why I did NOT go to these islands.

During three weeks in Cabo Verde, I explored four islands which form southern part of the archipelago: Fogo (a “volcano and wine” island), Brava (a “hiker paradise” island), Maio (a “forgotten beach” island), and Santiago (capital Praia, lush vegetation, and beautiful mountains),.

First thing first: how to travel to Cabo Verde? The country has three international airports: in capital Praia (Santiago island), and on Sal and Boavista islands (with many charter flights arriving there). Predictably, as a former Portuguese colony, most frequent flights to Praia are from Lisbon and this is how I flew there. The first image of Praia from the air was quite appealing.

Capital Praia from the air

With more than 150,000 inhabitants, Praia accumulates about one-third of the entire country’s population, and it is quite sprawling by the territory. The best area to stay in Praia is the so-called “Plateau” – a naturally elevated part of the city with nice pedestrian streets, many restaurants and cafes, governmental offices, etc. I was lucky and found an excellent AirBnB (right in the middle of Plateau) which is run by a cheerful young couple: Suelly (she is teacher of English) and Ildo (he is a personal trainer). Their three-story house has several rooms and a roof-top terrace, and they also offer travelers a lot of small yet essential services: personalized guided tours, transportation through the island, etc. You can find Suelly’s place on AirBnB site (look for “Solo Traveler in the Heart of Praia”). Or, simply walk there, knock on the door, and ask for accommodations. The address is Rua Serpa Pinto 40, Praia.

Traveling between various Cabo Verde islands, I stayed several times in Praia and always with Suelly and Ildo: one really cannot wish anything better.

Suelly with her daughter

I had only one full day in Praia and simply walked around and explored Plateau part of the town. The national presidential palace is nice but fairly humble

Right next to the palace, I found a Catholic church (over 80% of Cabo Verdeans are Roman Catholics) with service in progress. Due to COVID restrictions, some people were listening to the mass sitting outside, and I joined them for a while

Praia has many street markets. The most famous (and by far the largest) is Sucupira market. Because of diversity of people and goods sold there, Sucupira Market is also known as the “Portrait of Cabo Verde.” Even if you are not big on shopping, it is definitely worth visiting and exploring.

Plateau area also has its own, much smaller but well stocked, market. And this was the place where I did most of the grocery shopping.

Next day, I was planning to go to Fogo island and then some unplanned adventures began. There are two ways of traveling between islands. The first option is by air. Except Brava and Santo Antao, all islands have small airports which are served by domestic flights (for tickets, look at http://www.bestflycaboverde.com). The second, more adventurous and much cheaper, option is by taking ferry boats which are operated by the ship company called CV Interilhas (www.cvinterilhas.cv). CV Interilhas is notorious for being inevitably off schedule: departures and arrivals times can be delayed by the hours. But I was not in a hurry and wanted to travel as the locals do. Problem was that by time of my arrival to Cabo Verde all CV Interilhas’ ferry boats (there are just three of them) were broken and non-operating. I was told that this does not happen very often (good news), but no one knew when the ferry will resume its service (bad news). Interilhas’ website did not offer any information or updates. When I visited in-person central office, the distressed employee was wildly guessing and said: “May be in a day, or two, or a week…” With limited choices, I bought air ticket (about 40 Euro) for a flight to Fogo. The departure was at around 6 am and, except few passengers traveling with me, the airport was nearly deserted at that time.

Just a few passengers on flight from Praia to Fogo

By the way, “flying to Fogo” is not exactly correct description. The plane essentially takes off, ascends up to certain altitude, and almost immediately begins landing. The whole thing lasts only about 30 min. And here I am: welcome to the airport of Sao Felipe, the capital of Fogo island.

Fogo Island: Volcanoes, Wine and Black Sand Beaches

Fogo (Portuguese for “fire”) is 26 km long and 24 km wide, and it has a population of about 36,000. Rising to 2,829 meters (9,281 feet), active volcano, Pico do Fogo, is Cabo Verde’s highest point and the major attraction for visitors to Fogo. The whole island is essentially a stratovolcano that has been active frequently and recently: it last erupted in 1995 and 2014. In the middle of the island is Bordeira, a nine-kilometer-wide (5.6 mi) caldera with walls of one kilometer (0.62 miles) high and a breach in its eastern rim. The road through this breach which connects inside of caldera and the rest of the island. Why someone would need a road inside of volcanic caldera? Because two villages, Portela and Bangaeira, exist on the floor of the caldera and form together a community Chã das Caldeiras with about 700 inhabitants. The perseverance of the residents of Cha das Caldeiras is amazing. During last two eruptions, both villages were destroyed and people were evacuated. Yet, both times they returned back and rebuilt homes. There is no running water or electricity in Chã. The locals use generators to light and power their homes. The rainwater is collected and stored in large cistern tanks.

Inside of caldera: volcano Pico de Fogo.

I will tell more about the trip to Cha das Caldeiras a bit later. But first – a few words about Sao Felipe, the capital of Fogo. It was founded in the 16th century and has a nice historic city center (called Bila Baxo) which is on the tentative list of World Heritage Sites. Sao Felipe is known for colonial architecture: many houses have colorful and richly decorated façades, wooden balconies, or bay windows. About 50 mansions are the so-called sobrados – the town-houses dating back to Portuguese colonial epoque. Featuring typically two floors with a wide balcony, the sobrados were the residences of the notable and rich people. And I ended up staying in one of these – nicely restored – sobradas. Looking through the various AirBnB options, I found a place called “Casa Beirmar.” It had very positive reviews from the guests was run by the “superhost” named Mustafa. Casa Beirmar had two floors, several rooms and apartments, and huge balcony overlooking ocean. But during the stay in Sao Felipe, I was the only guest in this sprawling mansion.

Casa Beirmar, my home in Sao Felipe

As it turned out, the owner of Casa Beirmar, Mustafa, is somewhat of a legendary person on Fogo. A Turk by origin and devoted mountain climber by passion, he lives and works mostly in Western Europe. But he also has family and sizeable tourist business on Fogo. I communicated with Mustafa via WhatsUp, asked him many questions about the island, and before long it felt like talking with an old friend. Big THANKS goes to Mustafa for his numerous tips and insights into life on Fogo. Upon arrival to Casa Beirmar, I was greeted by the cheerful housekeeper Camilla who takes care of all guests staying at Casa Beirmar.

Me and Camilla, the housekeeper and great cook at Casa Beirmar.

Speaking of Camilla, when you stay at Casa Beirmar, there is no need to go to restaurants: Camilla is an outstanding cook. You tell her what type of food you like and then simply let her create a very “personalized” dish. I told Camilla that I like fish, fruits and vegetables (but no rice or potatoes, please) and here is my dinner plate which looks more like an artwork.

One of Camilla’s culinary creations

Casa Beirmar is right next to an old Catholic Church – “Igreja Nossa Senhora da Conceicao.”

The parish community seems to be very active. Nearly each evening the Church had worship services accompanied by a choral singing which I enjoyed sitting on balcony of Casa Beirmar.

Across the square in front of the church and to the left of Casa Beirmar, there is an excellent seafood restaurant called “Pensao e Restaurante Sea Food.” One night Camilla was unable to cook and I ordered from this restaurant my very favorite: grilled octopus.

Casa Beirmar is also very close to the town square of Sao Felipe. I enjoyed daily walking through this small but very appealing “plaza.”

Main Town Square of Sao Felipe

Even outside of the small historical center, the streets of Sao Felipe are fairly appealing and the houses are often painted in various bright colors.

One of the residential streets in Sao Felipe

On first day on Fogo, I visited “salinas.” “Salinas” is a coastal area on the north of Fogo (about 20 km from Sao Felipe) where black lava formed a series of ledges and arches. There is a viewing platform to walk around and a black sand crescent beach. Several blowholes inside of the rocks spray salty water which then dries out into white sparkling salt: hence, the names “salinas.” It is also a good and safe area for swimming. Lava created here many natural pools which are protected from ocean’s waves and currents. The trip to salinas from Sao Felipe by taxi costs about 30 Euro and it is well worth it. The landscapes along the coastal road were impressive.

On the way from Sao Felipe to salinas

No one was at salinas when we arrived. I spent about one hour exploring rock formations and even took a short swim.

And then a local fisherman came and began sorting out his catch of the day. When I approached, he was busy “butchering” a sizeable moray eel – another seafood specialty of Cabo Verde.

Salinas are often recommended to tourists as a perfect place for swimming on Fogo, but there is a much better option in a walking distance to Sao Felipe. The town has a big commercial port for ferries and cargo ships, but just a few hundred meters from it, there is a much smaller fishermen’s harbor. It is protected from the ocean by a solid wall with a small opening for boats to go in and out. During the day, there is little traffic and almost no boats there. The water is clean, calm and warm: think of the huge swimming pool filled with ocean water. While in Sao Felipe, I went there each day for a couple of hours of sunbathing and swimming.

Fishermen’s harbor: great place for swimming near Sao Felipe

Next to this protected pool, there is also a huge black sand beach. During several days of staying in Sao Felipe, I did not see a single tourist on that beach. On the picture below, there is a white building in a distance and on the slope of a mountain. This is Fogo’s prison. It looks that local inmates have truly astonishing view over the ocean.

It was time to visit the community of Cha das Caldeiras: to climb volcano, to explore villages in caldera, and drink locally produced wine (yes!). When traveling on Cabo Verde islands, most common option is “aluguer” – the minibuses which travel in different directions. Sometime there is a definite schedule for various destinations, sometime aluguer leave when they are filled with passengers going in the same direction, and sometime you can pay extra to driver so that he would take you to a particular spot. Regardless, traveling on aluguer is always fun as your “rub shoulders” with locals and observe everyday life from the window of a minibus.

After about two hours on the road, we arrived to the “official entrance” to Cha das Caldeiras

From there, the road begins to slowly climb up: the floor of caldera and villages are at the elevation of 1700 meters/5200 feet.

Road to Cha das Caldeiras

Some portions of the road are literally cut through lava.

Road to Cha das Caldeiras

And finally we were inside of caldera with the prime view of volcano Pico de Fogo

Some people come to Cha das Caldeiras only with a short day visit, but it is definitely worth to spend there one or two nights. Even if you do not plan on hiking and/or climbing volcano, simply staying in this unworldly lunar landscape is a unique experience. After last devastating eruption of 2014, the enterprising inhabitants of Portela and Bangaeira villages have not only returned to Cha and restored their houses, but also built a number of accommodations for tourists: small pensions, hostels, etc. Most of them are fairly simple, but there is one nearly luxurious option. Remember my “AirBnB friend” Mustafa – the fellow who owns Casa Beirmar in Sao Felipe? Well, his wife Marisa and her family are from Cha das Caldeiras and they operate by far the best hotel in caldera: “Casa Marisa 2.0” (www.fogo-marisa.com).

Marisa, the owner of “Casa Marisa 2.0”, and her daughter

Casa Marisa has fine restaurant, main hotel’s building, and nicely landscaped courtyard.

But I would say that the major “drag” of Casa Marisa are several “funcos” – comfortable bungalows which – from the outside – replicate traditional Caboverdian houses that originate from Africa.  Funco houses have circular form, their walls are made of rocks and stones, while conical thatch roof was traditionally made of palm fronds. Truth to be told, Casa Marisa offers quite upscale versions of “funcos:” they are very spacious, have hot showers, WiFi and even roof-top terraces. I stayed in this one.

After arrival, I still had a few hours of sunlight and went on a hike exploring the area inside of caldera. Amazingly, some plants and even flowers have managed to grow out of volcanic lava and ashes.

These red flowers are locally known as “Christmas flowers.”

I saw a few traditional “funco” houses, but probably not nearly as comfortable as the one which I had at Casa Marisa.

Traditional “funco” house in Cha das Caldeiras

But most people here live in even simpler houses like this one.

Shortly before sunset I climbed on the slope of the hill to get a better view of the entire area and both villages on the floor of caldera: Portella and Bangaeira.

And then there was time to head back to Casa Marisa. This evening, Mustafa arranged for me a special experience: tasting local wines which are produced by the agricultural cooperative of Cha das Caldeiras. Why the wines are produced in such unlikely place as a volcanic crater? Here is an answer. In 1870, a Frenchman, the Count of Montrond (François Louis Armand Fourcheut De Montrond) stopped on Fogo on his way to Brasil. He liked the island and stayed on Fogo until the end of his life. Montrond brought from France the vines and kicked off wine production in the caldera. He also produced coffee and exported it to Portugal. Today, many of the inhabitants of Chã das Caldeiras have light skin, blond hair, blue eyes, and the same family name: “Montrond.” They all trace their ancestry back to the biologically prolific Count of Montrond.

In terms of climatic conditions, because of the high altitude, Chã das Caldeiras has milder temperatures and greater precipitation than other areas of Fogo. Hence, local people manage to grow here a variety of fruits and vegetables: apples, grapes, quince, pomegranate, figs, peaches, tomatoes, beans, corn, etc.

Apples of Cha das Caldeiras

Many villagers make wine for the private home-consumption. The local agricultural cooperative buys excess grapes from the farmers and produces commercial white, red, rosé, and passito wines (all labeled “Chã”); and also grape, apple, quince, and peach distilled spirits (labeled “Espírito da Caldeira”). Chã das Caldeiras is the only area in entire Cape Verde that grows significant quantities of grapes and produces export-quality wines. When I came back to Casa Marisa, an impressive table was set under the stars with samples of all wines and spirits produced by Associação dos Agricultores de Chã (Chã Farmers Association). Quite appropriately, the name of the person who presented wines and explained various details was Eurico Montrond.

Tasting local wines at Casa Marisa.

Fogo island is also known for soft goat cheese. Small cheese-heads are round shaped and wrapped in banana leaves. This cheese is produced by a number of people, and sold at markets, restaurants and shops. My dinner at Casa Marisa that night consisted of expertly prepared seafood (some mollusks I never tried before), fresh goat cheese, and a bottle of aromatic white Cha wine.

The next day began early. At around 6.00 am (to use cool part of the day), I headed to “conquer” volcano Pico de Fogo. Some people do this hike and climb on their own: it is possible and doable. But having a local guide has many advantages not only in terms of finding best ways to get to the summit, but also learning along the way about local culture, nature, and many other things. My guide (and I can highly recommend him to everyone) was younger brother of yesterday’s “wine guide:” Flavio Montrond. The hike to the top of volcano is not difficult. Taking it slowly and with some breaks, we were at the top in about 4 hours. The views from the trail are quite impressive, especially, after ascending above the level of the clouds.

And then, at the top, you can take a look inside of a crater.

A few more steps, and the view opens towards the other side – in opposite direction from which we came.

And here is part of the hike where the real fun begins. Instead of returning back to caldera the same way, we started run down – better say “jump down” – on this fairly steep side of volcano. The thing is that this slope is covered with the thick layer (two-three feet deep) of soft volcanic ashes. Each jump lands you comfortably in the natural “feather bed.” In about 20 minutes (versus 4 hours of ascend), we were back at the base of volcano. Here is the slope which we just “jumped” down.

One more hour and we were back at Casa Marisa. I was about to say “Good Bye” to Flavio, but he suggested to go to “Casa Ramiro” for a glass of “Manecom.” What is “Casa Ramiro” and what is “Manecom?” Casa Ramiro is a local establishment and a little bit of everything: an informal cultural center where the locals meet, a bar, a shop, a small museum, and, most importantly, a place where men and women get together to play music and sing. What is “Manecom?” It is actually Chã’s best-known wine. Unlike commercially produced “Cha”-labeled wines, Manecom is house-made red wine. Many households make Manecom: both for sale and personal consumption. The sweet and strong in alcohol variety is by far the most popular. We sat with Flavio outside Casa Ramiro, drank Manecom, and talked about living in Cha das Caldeiros.

Flavio Montrond, my guide to the summit of Pico de Fogo

It was getting dark and Flavio went home, but I stayed at Casa Ramiro a bit longer. First I looked at various artifacts: music instruments used by locally famous musicians, old photos depicting life in Cha das Caldeiras, etc.

And then, one by one, local men came with music instruments and very informal but lovely jam session began.

An impromptu music night at Casa Ramiro

I came home late, but Marissa, the owner of Casa Marissa, and her young daughter were waiting for me to say “Good night and good bye,” because I was planning to leave early next day.

Marissa, the owner of Casa Marisa, and her daughter

Next day, I wanted to be in Sao Felipe in the morning, but aluguer wouldn’t go until the mid of the day. Not a big deal. Through my “wine guide,” Eurico Montrond, I found a perfect private ride with local girl named Carla. It turned out that Carla is newly appointed chief wine-maker at another winery situated near Sao Felipe: Vinha Maria Chaves.

Being originally from Fogo, Carla received her professional training in Portugal. She had all chances and options to stay there, but, instead was passionate about making good wine in Cabo Verde. Honestly, “Cha” wines which I tried in caldera were Ok, but nothing special to write home about. I asked Carla to show her winery and she gave a “grand tour.” We also tasted her first (not bottled yet) wines. Hands down, Carla’s wines were the best of all that I tried in Cabo Verde.

Carla, wine-maker at Vinha Maria Chaves. For best Cabo Verde wines, look no further.

I was on Fogo island already five days and wanted to go to the next destination, the island of Brava – the smallest and least visited of all Cabo Verde islands. Problem was that there is no airport on Brava and there was still no word from CV Interilha about when ferry service would resume. But when I woke up next morning, the local tour agency called and informed that the ferry would arrive to Fogo in a few hours and proceed further to Brava: this is how many things function in Cabo Verde. I bought ticket and rushed to the port just in time. The process of “checking-in” luggage looked somewhat suspicious. The passengers simply gave their suitcases or backpacks to the men on several trucks and told them to which island they go. No receipts and no luggage tags.

Checking-in luggage for ferry to Brava

Then we went through the gates and boarded – hopefully properly repaired – ship.

The weather was perfect and I stayed on the upper deck.

On ferry from Fogo to Brava

It was time to say “Good Bye” to Fogo – the island of volcanoes, black sand beaches, wine and, most importantly, many good people who helped me to discover Fogo in the best possible way.

Brava Island: Hiking Paradises, Secret Beach, and House with “Million Dollar View”

After about three hours on ferry boat from Fogo, Furna, the main port on Brava island, came into view.

Town of Furna, main port of Brava

Brava (Portuguese for “brave” or “wild”) is the smallest of all Cabo Verde islands. It has total population of just about 6,000 and the territory of 67 square kilometers / 26 square miles. Cabo Verdians describe Brava as the “greenest” and “most mountainous” island. Most visitors to Cabo Verde don’t even think about traveling to Brava arguing that “there are no beaches there” and “there is nothing to do on Brava.” Both assertions are totally wrong in my view.

Brava was discovered in 1462 by the Portuguese explorer Diogo Afonso, but few people lived there until 1680. This was the year when Brava received many refugees from Fogo after its volcano erupted and covered the island with ash. Frequent pirate attacks forced the population to move to the interior of the island, where the capital town of Nova Sintra was founded around 1700.

The nicest place to stay on Brava is Fajã de Agua which is a small harbor village on the west coast. Backed by the steep mountains and wide open towards the ocean, Faja de Agua has very appealing vibes of being secluded, but, at the same time, spacious and welcoming. This was my first glimpse of Faja de Agua when I arrived by taxi from Furna.

Faja de Agua

Essentially, the whole village is stretched along one road which parallels the ocean. Each day I walked this road and enjoyed the calm and peace of Faja de Agua.

A few accommodations are available for tourists in Faja de Agua. My ultimate choice was “Kaza di Zaza” (www.kazadizaza.com) – a place which describes itself as “the Capeverdean dream of Dutchmen Erick Mulder.” Eric, a professional boat builder from the Netherlands, settled on Brava about 15 years ago.

Eric Mulder, the owner of Kaza di Zaza

Eventually, he created a compound consisting of three houses: all built on the slope of the mountain and one above another. Here is the picture of the entire Kaza di Zaza: the main white two-story house, smaller yellow bungalow up and to the left, and, finally a very simple hut up and to the right. All three places are available for visitors.

The main house has a shady adjacent terrace with tables and benches.

My choice of accommodations, however, was very simple upper hut.

It has a light bulb, but no running water or power outlets. There is, however, a small outside kitchen with propane stove and an outside solar heated shower. Water supply comes from a huge cistern under the house.

My home at Kaza di Zaza

This shack was perfect choice for me: always fresh ocean breeze, quietness, and – most importantly – truly “million dollar view” both at night and day.

Faja de Agua has one “official tourist attraction:” piscina natural Faja de Agua. It is a natural swimming pool in the southern end of the village which is formed by the rocks and stones separating pool from the ocean. When the waves are high, they splash over the edges of the pool and splatter powerfully all over. Swimming there is a lot of fun.

Piscina natural Faja de Agua
Piscina natural Faja de Agua

Knowing my love for swimming, Eric told me that there is a much better place than piscina natural: a hidden and well protected (from waves and currents) black sand beach called Porto de Portete. The beach is to the south of Faja de Agua and is accessible via trail along the coast. It takes about 40 minutes to get there and the first “landmark” along the road to the beach is former Brava’s airport. The Esperadinha Airport was inaugurated in 1992 but closed twelve years later because of persisting and dangerously strong winds.

Former airport on Brava island

The runway is still in a very good shape, but presently only donkeys seem to be interested to take off from it.

Past airport, the next reference point for the trail is this building with quite impressive grafiti. Go there: the trail continues on the building’s right side.

After about 30 more minutes of hiking and some “ups” and “downs,” you will turn around the corner and see deep incised bay.

Best beach on Brava

Most of the beach is covered with large pebbles, but at the very far end there is a spot with perfect black sand. And this was the place where I went each day for sunbathing and swimming.

As to the cleanliness and transparency of water….simply look at this picture:

Faja de Agua has couple of cafes with decent food, but no real shops. Hence, one day I boarded aluguer and went to New Sintra, the capital of Brava. The town is located at the altitude of about 500 meters and it is usually much cooler in New Sintra than in Faja de Agua. Predictably, New Sintra also gets more fog and rain than the coastal parts of the island. There are a few minor tourist attractions in New Sintra (including house-museum of Eugénio Tavares, a famous Cape Verdean writer), but I simply enjoyed walking around: the town is actually quite pleasant with many old colonial houses and cobblestone streets.

The main square of New Sintra is called Praça Eugénio Tavares. It has a small park, a music pavilion, a post office, a bank, a pharmacy and the City Hall. On the right side of the square, there is Igreja do Nazareno  the largest Protestant denomination in Cabo Verde and the second in size religious group after the Roman Catholics.

For people who enjoy hiking, Brava should definitely be on the list of “must visit” places. Lush vegetation, mountainous landscapes, abundance of old abandoned villages, and the absence of any natural dangers make this island a real hiker’s paradise. There are many trails, routes and destinations which vary in duration and difficulty. But if you limit yourself to just ONE hike on Brava, choose this one. First take aluguer to the mountainous village Nossa Senhora do Monte and find there an old Catholic church of the same name: Nossa Senhora do Monte.

Church of the Nossa Senhora do Monte

From there, a well visible trail begins which eventually will bring you back to the coast and Faja de Agua.

Beginning of trail to Faja de Agua

The first portion of the hike descends very gradually and offers good views of the interior of the island.

Then the trail begins to descend more steeply, but it is still very comfortable and easy to walk. Eventually, ocean comes into the view far and down.

The chances are great that you will meet on the trail plenty of donkeys: they are calm, “peaceful,” and harmless.

After about one-and-half hour of descend, this fully abandoned village will come into the view: the trail continues along right side of the village.

One more hour and you are back in Faja de Agua, and the trail ends right next to Kaza di Zaza. Turn around and look at the mountains form which you just came.

I stayed on Brava four nights and could have stayed longer. In fact, Eric told me about certain German fellow who comes each year and spends on the island couple of weeks. But I had already in mind next destination on Cabo Verde. Ferry boat came again to Furna, and Eric called a “taxi” for me. It was an aluguer, but just for one passenger – me. The driver spoke perfect English, and it turned out that he lived and worked many years in Massachusetts and even acquired US passport. But he did not like fast pace of life in America and returned to slow and easy living on Brava.

My “taxi” on Brava

Instead of taking major highway connecting Faja de Agua, New Sintra and Furna, he has chosen some old narrow and steep roads. This shortcut saved us time and also offered great panoramic view of Furna.

Port of Furna with ferry boat waiting.

A few more minutes and I was at the harbor of Furna.

And then I was on the boat heading to next destination: first, back to capital Praia and then, next day, to the island of Maio,

Good bye Brava!

Maio: lost in Time Beach Island

Sea coasts, islands and unspoiled beaches are my favorite types of natural settings. However, two Caboverdian islands which are most known for beaches – Sal and Boavista – have already become very commercial and attract thousands of package-vacation tourists. Luckily, one more island of Cabo Verde has outstanding beaches: Maio. And unlike Sal and Boavista, Maio feels like a lost in time island with local residents and fishermen going leisurely about their business and a smattering of ex-pats living there.

Island of Maio

After about two hours on ferry boat from Praia, the island came into view and I knew instantly that this is my type of place.

Arriving to Maio

Maio is 24 km / 15 miles long and 16 km / 10 miles wide. Of about 7,000 total population, almost half lives in capital Porto Ingles also known as Villa de Maio. The island receives a lot of sunshine and little rain, but this comes for a price. Due to persisting drought, in the 20th century, many inhabitants emigrated from Maio. At the same time, some smart people from Western Europe and America discovered this small speck of land with perfect weather, easy going life, and hospitable locals and moved to live here. One of these expats was my AirBnB host, Alessandro. An acclaimed architect from Italy with experience of living and working worldwide, he came to Maio for vacations ten years ago and essentially never left since then. His professional skills found good demand on Maio, and Alessandro designed here a number of commercial objects and private houses. Of course, he also built for himself a three-story villa. Alessandro offers some rooms on AirBnB and this was my choice for staying on Maio. My room was on the upper floor with the view of ocean, harbor and beach.

Alessandro’s villa on Maio
View from my room in Alessandro’s villa

The lower level of the house is occupied by spacious living room with furniture and artifacts from around the globe.

The staircase to the second and third floors is designed in a such way that it leaves like a hole in the middle of the house. Alessandro mentioned that his plan is to plant a tree on the lower level which would grow through this hole to second-third floors.

My favorite part of the house was furnished roof-top deck – the place where I spent most evenings sipping wine, having dinner and reading.

The house is in a walking distance from the harbor, but Alessandro offered to meet me with car to help with luggage. The surprise was that I was not the only one whom Alessandro was expecting on the ferry. His wife Indira and newly born daughter Pietra Giovanna came on the same boat.

Indira was born and grew up in a remote village on Santiago island. She studied and worked hard for her family’s small business: an inter-island fish trade. I do not know how good Indira was as a business woman, but I can confess that she is an outstanding gourmet chef. One night, Alessandro invited me to join family for a dinner. The local dishes created by Indira were presented in the most elegant way.

Fine dinner prepared by Indira

Before exploring beaches of Maio, I walked around its capital, Porto Ingles/Vila do Maio. It does not have the same colonial-style elegance as Sao Felipe on Fogo, but it is a very pleasant town. An open-air public gym is built right on the seafront.

A nicely restored Catholic Church, Nossa Senhora da Luz, is in the middle of the town.

From the steps of the church, you can get a panoramic view of the town with ocean in background.

Villa de Maio

Now was time to explore the beaches, and it was a very easy task. Indeed, two by far the best beaches are right in Porto Ingles. One was in the front of Alessandro’s home and next to harbor. It has fine sand and very calm waters.

Municipal beach in Porto Ingles/Vila do Maio

Another excellent option – especially for someone who looks for entirely deserted beach – is Ponta Preta. It is just couple kilometers south of Porto Ingles. I loaned bicycle from Alessandro and was at Ponta Preta in about 20 minutes. Bottom line: living in Porto Ingles/Vila do Maio and “living on the beach” is pretty much the same.

Ponta Preta beach near Porto Ingles

Next day, I explored eastern part of Maio. I wrote already about excellent goat cheese which is traditionally made on Fogo island. This tradition, however, was also adopted by the residents of other islands: at least, on Maio. A small cheese factory exists in a picturesque coastal village, Ribeira Dom Joao, about 10 km east of Port Ingles. Called Queijaria de Ribeira Dom Joao, it is run by a single person, a lady named Rosalinda. There were no aluguers going to Ribeira Dom Joao until late afternoon, but I simply hitchhiked there (hitchhiking works quite well in Cabo Verde). Finding Rosalinda and her small factory was easy, and in no time I was sitting at the table and sampling her cheeses.

After purchasing a sufficient supply of cheeses, I continued hitchhiking along the east coast of Maio: not looking for anything in particular, but simply exploring scenery and small settlements. All villages were quite attractive: their inhabitants painted houses in various bright colors. Here is couple of pictures from my last stop, the village called Alcatraz.

Maio is small: it can be circumnavigated by car couple of hours. Yet, there is one particular area of the island which can be reached on feet only and which deserves at least one full day of exploration. It is protected sand dunes zone on northern coast and near village of Morrinho which is situated about 15 km / 10 miles north of Vila do Maio / Porto Inglez. The road to Morrinho is made of cobblestones and it is fairly comfortable for the ride on the bicycle.

Road from Villa Maio to Morrinho

When I arrived to Morrinho, the village felt remarkably empty. Only a few donkeys were roaming the main square and near the church.

The village of Morrinho

I was not sure where to go from there and how to find the trail to dunes, but then I noted in the distance a huge cross and walked to it.

Very close to the cross, there were couple of posters with description of the dunes and various hiking trails to explore the area.

My time was limited and I opted for the shortest option – a straight hike through the dunes and to the ocean.

Hiking through the dunes in the north of Maio

In about 40 minutes, I came to a group of palm trees.

The trail almost disappeared, but then I saw ocean in the distance. About 15 more minutes and I was on another perfect and absolutely deserted beach.

I picked up at a restaurant in Villa do Maio and brought with me scrumptious lunch: some mollusks cooked in spicy sauce with sweet potatoes and plantains.

After meal and nice “siesta” nap, I headed back to Morrinho and then to Villa do Maio. On the wall of some house close to Alessandro’s home, I saw this inscription.

This was my last day and evening on Maio, and I thought that these words captured perfectly the nature of this small island and people who live here.

Santiago: Living in a Small Fishing Village

Santiago is the largest island of Cabo Verde. Of 300,000 residents, half live in the national capital, Praia.  Santiago was also the first of the islands to be settled: the oldest town, Ribeira Grande, was founded in 1462. Today, it is called Cidade Velha and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Santiago is mountainous and the most forested island of Cape Verde: 38% of its area is forest. The interior and the east coast have hot tropical climate and are densely forested, the south and southwest are in the rain shadow and occupied by more arid uplands, the west coast is rugged and less populated than the rest of the island.

For visitors, Santiago offers a bit of everything: bustling street markets (Sukupira being most known), frequent cultural (especially, musical) events, decent beaches, good options for hiking and two national parks: Serra do Pico de Antónia and Serra Malagueta.

My time was limited and – instead of exploring different parts of the island – I decided to find some interesting place and use it as a base for day-trips and adventures. For two reasons, fishing village of Ribeira da Prata on the north-west coast attracted my attention.

Ribeira da Prata

First, it was very close to the town of Tarrafal which is known for good beaches and is well connected by frequent alluguers with capital Praia (it takes about two hours from Praia to Tarrafal). But second and most important, I found in this village a quite interesting AirBnB offer. A young French couple, Fabrice and Elodie, moved to live there, bought land, and built castle-like tower-home overseeing the ocean.

The room for visitors is on the top floor. It is a very simple room, but with bathroom, hot shower, and also an outside terrace with incredible view. Sleeping there, under constant sound of the ocean’s waves was perfect.

The second floor of the house is a “social space” and well equipped kitchen.

Kitchen and living room on the second floor of the house

Outside there is a small garden.

Elodie tending to one of fruit trees

Fast forward, I was very happy staying three nights at Fabrice and Elodie’s place: both because of accommodations and genuine “welcome” spirit of my hosts (if you decide to stay with them, here is an email: tarrafaldream@gmail.com). As it turned out, on the day of my arrival, there was some church festival in the village. This was perfect occasion to explore social scene and meet local residents.

This small festival was also a good opportunity to buy super-cheap and grilled right on the street various fresh seafood. Clearly, there was no doubt about freshness of sea products in the fishing village.

Eventually, I got slightly tired from the “crowds and sounds” and went on a short (about 20 min) hike to see and use Piscina Natural de Cuba. It is a natural swimming pool formed by the rocks right next to the ocean.

Piscina Natural da Cuba, excellent place to take a dip on hot days.

Speaking of swimming and sunbathing, there is also an excellent black sand beach in Ribeira da Prata, but I did not know about it until the next morning. The next day, Fabrice pointed to some mountain behind the village and explained that there is a good hiking trail there and a view from the top. As it turned out, I misunderstood his directions and attempted to “storm” an entirely different summit. This one was for real mountain climbers and I never made it to the very top.

I was unable to climb this last portion

But even from the place where I stopped the view of Ribeira da Prata was perfect and with my castle-tower-home clearly visible at the far end of the village.

Also, from this vantage point, I discovered a huge crescent black sand beach right next to Ribeira da Prata.

Excellent black sand beach right next to Ribeira da Prata

I was dead tired after this hike, but upon return home Elodie told me that there is a national batuku festival this evening in Tarrafal. Batuku is a blend of popular oral tradition and a women’s dance and song. It is accompanied by various instruments, but the drums always play a key role. I took the taxi to Tarrafal (about 5 Euro) and immersed myself for the rest of the evening in this both social and music experience.

The next day, Fabrice invited me to join him, Elodie, and their young daughter on a hike to his – surprise! – ancestral village. Fabrice grew up in France, but his parents were originally from Cabo Verde, from some now abandoned mountain village a few kilometers inland from Ribeira da Prata. In fact, Fabrice explained, he still owns some land and houses in this village and has a dream to restore them and convert into ecological bungalows for tourists. Needless to say that Fabrice knew perfectly all trails, and in about 30 minutes of walking we were already surrounded by the beautiful mountains.

Elodie was carrying on her back their child (not an easy job on mountainous trails), and, at certain point we left her to rest and wait for us.

A few more kilometers and we were in Fabrice’s parental village. It was fun to explore abandoned houses and listen to Fabrice’s stories about realities of life here in the past.

We walked back to Ribeira da Prata, and – amazingly – on the to the ocean the landscapes looked even more captivating and attractive.

When we were already close to the home, near the road, I noted some elderly women who were digging sand and stones. Fabrice explained that it has been traditionally female’s job to gather natural construction materials which will be used later by men to build the houses. We stopped and Fabrice talked with one of the women.

It was my last day with Fabrice and Elodie and time to say “Good bye!” to them. But I was not sad, because I knew very well that I will be back.

Good bye, my new friends from Ribeira da Prata!

I had one more day on Santiago, and the plan was to see one of its natural parks: Parque Natural de Serra Malagueta. It is situated in the middle of the island and the entrance to the park is conveniently located on a major highway connecting Tarrafal and Praia. The park is not huge by American standards (about 800 hectares), but it has an impressive diversity of landscapes, flora, and fauna (it is especially known for a variety of birds). Further, a couple of traditional villages are inside of the park: hence, visit there was a good possibility to combine hiking, nature, and learning about local life. I hired a guide at park’s office (about 40 Euro for 4 hours) and we took off. It was an easy hike, because the trail descends slowly from the top into the canyon where most of the park is.

The view from the trail on Parque Natural de Serra Malagueta

We saw some colorful birds.

And then we were at the bottom and continued hiking along the canyon.

The last portion of the hike was through a couple of villages and I was glad that I hired the guide. He told a good number of stories about local traditions, agriculture, homes, and generally life here.

I could have stayed the last night in Praia, but there was a much better option. Close to the Parque Natural de Serra Malagueta and right next to the highway to Praia, there is an excellent small hotel. It is called “Cote de France” and is run by a French lady named Magali.

Magali, the cheerful owner of Cote de France hotel.

If you want to stay on Santiago in European-level boutique hotel, look no further: Cote de France is your ultimate (and very inexpensive) choice. The hotel does not have a website, but it can be found on booking.com. Or, simply send Magali email at cotedefrancecv@gmail.com. The hotel is located between towns of Fundura and Assomada, but any alluguer would stop by or pick up you directly from the hotel. I liked lush vegetation surrounding the hotel and simple but very comfortable rooms.

And the outside furnished deck of the hotel offered an excellent panoramic view of the island.

The view from the terrace of Cote de France hotel.

Another “bestselling” point of Cote de France is hotel’s fine restaurant. Three course dinner costs 10 Euro, and the cooks will prepare a meal tailored to your personal preferences.

My flight next day was in the afternoon. The ride from Cote de France to Praia would take only about one hour, and I was thinking about how to spend the remaining time. Magali gave me an excellent tip. She said that the best beach on Santiago, Praia de Sao Francisco, is just a few kilometers away from the airport. Further, although the beach is connected by a good road to both airport and Praia, few people normally go there. In Praia, I found a taxi driver who took me to Sao Francisco beach and then picked up in time to go to airport. And these were my final hours of a perfect trip to Cabo Verde.

Big THANKS goes to the small island nation of Cabo Verde and its welcoming people for three weeks of fun, sun and adventures.

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 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.


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