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How to get from Tblisi to Yerevan by train?
We made the journey recently, buying tickets for a 1st class carriage (“1st class. How fancy!” you say? As you’ll see, it really isn’t). This post covers almost everything you need to know about travelling Tblisi to Yerevan (and vice versa) by train.

First of all, you might wonder: “why do it by train?” You can also take the plane: Georgian Airways has 3 flights/day along that route taking 30 minutes (flights start at about $130 US return). You can also take buses (including minibuses) which will take 5 to 6 hours (there’s an excellent post on taking the bus here). Taking the train is the longest (10 ½ hrs) way to do it, the least convenient (it’s an overnight train), and it isn’t the cheapest option. But if you like train travel (like us) you may find it the most comfortable and hassle-free way to get from Tbilisi to Yerevan (I’ll get back to that later in the post).

Schedule, Cost, and buying your ticket Tbilisi to Yerevan

From October 2 to June 12 (low season) the train runs every 2nd night on odd days (we took the train on June 3rd) of the month, leaving Tbilisi at 8:20 pm and arriving in Yerevan at 6:55 am the next day.

From June 15 to September 30 (high season), the train runs every night, originating in Batumi, stopping in Tbilisi and leaving Tbilisi at 10:15 pm. It arrives in Yerevan at 7:50 am the next morning.

Yerevan to Tbilisi

From October 2 to June 12 (low season) the train runs every 2nd night on even days of the month, leaving Yerevan at 9:30 pm and arriving in Tbilisi at 7:50 am the next morning.

From June 15 to September 30 (high season), the train runs every night, leaving Yerevan at 3:30 pm and arriving in Tbilisi just after midnight. It then continues to Batumi.

Cost

1st Class (which is a 2 person compartment)  – 115 Gel (approx. $40 USD)
2nd Class (a 4 person compartment) – 85 Gel (approx. $30 USD)
3rd Class (open plan, no compartment) – 66 Gel (approx. $23 USD)

Above: First class compartment

Buying your ticket

There is a way of buying your ticket on the Armenian South Caucasus Website. I wasn’t able to negotiate my way around it however. Instead we went to the station a few days before and bought our tickets there (I recommend 3-5 days before). When you go to buy your ticket, bring your passport and cash to pay for your ticket.

VISA

Very important. Some countries require a Visa to get into Armenia. Americans don’t, but as Canadians we did (I don’t understand that. Same happened to us in Turkey). The best way is to get your visa is online. They require a photo so have a passport-type photo available which you can upload to the application. Other than that it is a simple process. We had our Visa in less than 24 hours but they advise allowing 3 days. It cost us $31 USD to get a Visa valid for 120 days.

If you haven’t planned ahead for your Visa, don’t worry. You can still get it upon arrival. We saw a few people doing this.

Train Stations (and getting there)

In Tbilisi the trains arrive in Tbilisi Central Station which is a little confusing as it looks (and is) a shopping mall. When you enter the building, go up the escalators. That’s where the train station is. You’ll find the ticket counters right there when you get up to the 2nd floor. You can get to the train station by metro (station: Station Square 1). It’s 3 metro stops from Liberty Square.

In Yerevan your experience will be totally different – the train station is a beautiful Soviet-era building (built in 1956). Take the time to walk around outside, there’s a Statue out front of Sasuntsi Davit in the gardens. He’s an Armenia folk hero from the Middle Ages. Just like in Tbilisi, the station is easily accessible by metro being 2 stations from Republic Square (get out at Sasuntsi Davit station).

Note: like everywhere, taxi drivers will try to screw you over when arriving at the train station. When we arrived in Yerevan the first taxi driver that approached us wanted 7,000 Drams (almost $15 US) to get us downtown. The “normal” price should be about 2,500 Drams, about $ 5 US.

Above: our train at the Tbilisi train station

What’s the train like? Our experience

Taking the train in Georgia/Armenia is similar to any train journey you’ve taken in Eastern Europe. The standard isn’t very high. Don’t expect much.

We arrived at the station about 45 minutes early. The train to Yerevan leaves from Platform 3. The train was already there and a few employees were standing around outside. We were directed to the front of the train for 1st class. There a lady looked at our tickets and our passports and showed us to our compartment. It looked clean and there was enough room for our bags (we had 2 hand luggage-sized suitcases and 2 backpacks). But there is no AC on the train and the compartment was absolutely sweltering (it was 35C that day). Windows are sealed in the compartment. The only air you get is when the train moves and that’s from a couple of windows in the corridor that do open. It was so hot in there that passengers, initially rushing to their compartments, came back out and waited outside until the very last minute before departure.

There is no wifi and no power sockets except for a couple in the corridor. When the train started moving the attendant came by with a package containing linens for the beds. There were pillows in a compartment up top but they were smelly (we didn’t use them).

There is no dining car on the train so bring your own food and drink. In each carriage there is a western-style toilet which gets progressively dirtier as the voyage progresses.

But the worst was the heat and lack of air. It got a bit cooler as it got dark. But really it was uncomfortable throughout and everyone kept their compartments open for that little air that was coming in through the corridor windows.

As I mentioned above, this was first class.

Timing:

8:20 pm. Departure
10:15 pm. Georgian immigration (they come on board, you don’t have to do anything but show them your passport). The whole process took an hour.
11:15 pm. We started up again.
11:45 pm. Armenian immigration. Again, immigration came on board and go through your passport and Visa (if required). People who didn’t have a Visa got off the train to get one in the station.
12: 45 am. We started up again. From here we weren’t interrupted anymore and lights we turned off in the corridor. There were a lot of stops at small stations along the way.
6:50 am. Arrival in Yerevan.

Note: if you’ve spent time in Azerbaijan you’ll face a lot of questions entering Armenia (the two countries don’t get along). They’ll ask you when you were there, why, where you stayed…I’ve even heard that they might call the hotel where you claim to have stayed. Prepare all your paperwork in advance.

Below: train station in Yerevan, Armenia

So was taking the train between Tbilisi and Yerevan worth it?

Lissette who will always opt for train travel, will tell you “no”. It was entirely because of the heat which made the trip very uncomfortable. We sweated throughout and were a sticky mess by the time we arrived in Yerevan the next morning. It was a very long, uncomfortable ride.

The other thing: the morning views of Mt. Ararat as you approach Yerevan are impressive. And the views on the route are also supposed to be impressive – unfortunately since this is a night train you won’t experience any of those highlights.

Above: Views of Mt. Ararat as you approach Yerevan

In hindsight I think it would have been a lot easier flying. And unless you’re really determined to take the train, we would recommend flying or taking the bus. That’s our opinion.

Have you taken the train between Tbilisi and Yerevan?

The post Tbilisi to Yerevan by train. Is it worth doing? appeared first on The Travels of BBQboy and Spanky.

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What’s a Gulet cruise? No, it’s not a cruise with an all-you-can-eat buffet where you can stuff food down your gullet. A “Gulet” is a traditional two or three-masted sailing vessel from the southwestern coast of Turkey. It is also the ultimate in luxury travel.

My cousin Michael is in the luxury cruise business. Egyptian football star Mohammed Salah was the latest celebrity he hosted on his yacht. But it’s not just celebrities that book cruises on luxury cruises. On our recent trip to Turkey we found out that Turkish luxury gulets are one of the best ways of discovering the beautiful coastline of  Southern Turkey. Some of the most popular itineraries cover the many hidden bays between Budrum and the Gulf of Fethiye, places like Ölüdeniz, the Seven Islands, Cleopatra Island, Karacasöğüt, Longoz Bay, and Kissebükü Koyu.

A few of the highlights of the Turkish Riviera (also known as the Turquoise Coast)

Above: Ölüdeniz

Above: Olympos Beach

Above: Konyaalti Beach

The Turkish Riviera is one of the most beautiful coastal waters anywhere in the world. Discovering it is the primary reason people book gulets.

The flexibility of building your own itinerary

Many people book a luxury gulet cruise because of the flexibility. Whatever your itinerary they’ll cater to what you want. Have a look at this article covering the most beautiful beaches in Turkey for itinerary ideas. Most people book a week with their friends and family. But the possibilities are endless – some people hire a gulet for a month and add the Greek islands to their itinerary. The size of the gulets also vary: you can book one that accommodates 8 people or one that accommodates up to 20.

The Ultimate in Luxury?

Have a look below.

Above: The “Double Eagle”. 5 Cabins, 12 guests, 5 cabin crew

Above: The “All about U”. 6 cabins, 12 guests, and a crew of 8.

But the best? Gulets have a crew taking care of you. There can be as many as 8 crew members on the larger vessels. That includes a personal chef. Do your favorite foods include prawns, charcoal-cook fresh fish, or grilled lamb chops? No problem, your chef will cook you anything you want. You want a pizza before you go to bed? He’ll make that for you too. Want him to tuck you in? I don’t know if he’ll do that but chances are he might. Before you go on your cruise you tell him what you like to eat and drink – the boat is going to be fully stocked with everything you could ever wish for.

Activities

So what to do while you’re on your gulet cruise? That’s up to you. Most people plan their itineraries around the secluded bays and islands of the Turkish Riviera and indulge in water activities like snorkling, kayaking, fishing or even jet skiing. If you’re interested in history and sightseeing your crew will arrange a sightseeing tour of some of the many sights in the region (Roman ruins for example. There are many in the region). The whole reason that people book a luxury gulet is for the flexibility of doing whatever they want.

So how much does it Cost ?

The average luxury gulet will come out to about 12,000 Euros for a week. Most will accommodate 10 to 12 passengers, making the cost approximately 1,100 Euros per person per week. Food is extra, starting at about 310 Euros per person. So you’re looking at a total of close to 1,500 Euros per person per week based on the maximum occupancy of a gulet (which depends on the gulet in question and the time of year).  But look at it this way: how much would you pay for a fancy villa where you have the same view every day? And how much extra would you pay for food and activities? 

Is booking a gulet something you would ever consider?

Disclosure: This post is sponsored by Turkey Luxury Gulet. They are the number one gulet specialist for luxury cruises in Turkey with 14 years of experience and over 650+ gulet charters.

The post The Ultimate in Luxury travel? It might be a Turkish Luxury Gulet Cruise appeared first on The Travels of BBQboy and Spanky.

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My Best (and worst) of Morocco, a.k.a why Morocco is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been but why I also hated many aspects of it, a.k.a why Morocco would be great if was uninhabited…

I could have many titles for this post. I spent 5 weeks in Morocco last November and December and half the time I hated it, the other half I loved it. It’s a place that I think people should visit because they’ll see and experience things that they’ll never see or experience anywhere else. You’ll probably leave feeling dazed and amazed – but also relieved.

This post covers things and places I loved in Morocco and well as the things and places I didn’t like at all…

My Best of Morocco
The Geography

Morocco is up there with some of the most beautiful geography I’ve seen anywhere. Not just beautiful but varied geography: mountains, desert, coasts, gorges…

Here are my Top 6 Places

1. Toubkal National Park.

I spent 3 days hiking in the mountains just south of Marrakesh. The main gateway to the park is Imlil (1 ½ hours from Marrakech) but I really recommend that you go to Aroumd which is straight up from Imlil. It’s a small town that looks out at the whole valley. The best way to get up there is by mule. The area has some of the best hiking I’ve ever done and the geography is varied: you’ll have dry landscapes and bare rocks but you’ll also pass through valleys where you’d swear you were in Switzerland but at non-Switzerland prices: my riad (ie. hotel) came out to $35 US (including meals) and the mountains guides I hired cost the same. Incredible. Lots of detail on my 3 days of hiking around Toubkal.

2. The Semi-desert landscapes on the way to (and around) Ait Benhaddou.

Coming from Marrakesh in the direction of Ait Benhaddou you’ll go over the Tizi-n-Tichka pass. That’s impressive enough. But instead of continuing along the main road after the pass, the road to Telouet is all semi-desert with red earth, plateaus, green valleys, snow-capped mountains and a river gorge that cuts through the landscape. It is stunning and you might not see anyone else along the way (it’s a bit off the beaten path. Best to do what I did and get yourself a private driver from Marrakech). I detail the journey here. Make sure to stop at Kasbah Glaoui.

3. Merzouga.

Prior to Merzouga I had never been in the desert. I spent 3 days there hiking, taking camels rides, and driving an ATV. But I’ve never forget the stillness and solitude of the desert and my highlight was an afternoon spent walking through the desert and sitting on a dune looking out at the highest dunes in Morocco. All about Merzouga here.

4. The Blue City of Chefchaouen.

Nothing new here and if you know anything about Morocco you know about Chefchaouen. It’s a favorite of Instagrammers which is reason enough to hate the place – if it wasn’t so beautiful. It’s one of those towns (like Guanajuato in Mexico) that you’ll always remember. I’ll remember Chefchaouen for having been bitten by bedbugs. Didn’t stop me from loving the place though.

5. The Atlantic Coastline at Essaouira.

I spent a week in Essaouira and would enjoy walking along the beach in the morning, looking at the rising mist over the Atlantic. There’s not much to do in Essaouira and it is touristy…but it’s a lovely, picturesque town with lots of history and a very different geography than what I saw anywhere else in Morocco.

6. The gorges, mountains, and valleys on the road from Ait Benhaddou to Tinghir.

More incredible semi-desert landscapes with gorges thrown in. Again, the best way to explore this route is with a driver. More on the landscapes and highlights along the way here.

Really, the geography that you see above was my absolute highlight in Morocco. My biggest advice is to leave the cities behind* and to get out into the countryside.

* I wrote about Fez and Marrakesh here. But Moroccan cities weren’t a highlight for me.

But there were other aspects of Morocco that impressed me.

The Old Forts

Morocco has lots of old forts and palaces and most travellers miss them visiting the cities. Some of my highlights were Kasbah Glaoui (outside Telouet), Kasbah Amridil (near the town of Skoura), and the whole of Ait Benhaddou which is a fortified village and UNESCO world heritage site. I love the tilework that you see in many of the palaces, it is for me one of the most beautiful aspects of Moorish design (see the Saadian Tombs and El Bahia Palace in Marrakesh and El Glaoui Palace and Bou Inania Madrasa in Fez).

Above: Kasbah Amridil

Above: Kasbah Glaoui

Above: Ait Benhaddou

Above: Bou Inania Madrasa (Fez)

Above: Glaoui Palace (Fez)

Markets

Markets in Morocco have a lot of colour and you’ll see lots of beautiful carpets, leatherware, ceramic plates and materials. If you’re a shopper you’ll go crazy. When Lissette and I have an apartment again we’ll go back to Morocco just to pick up some decorations.

  Mint Tea

I didn’t much like the food in Morocco (more on that below) – but I LOVED the mint teas. They’ll serve it to you whenever you check into a hotel, it’s what you can count on more than anything. And they’ll usually bring you cookies to go with it. I love Moroccan tea more than any other tea anywhere in the world (btw, their coffee, “nous nous” is fantastic as well).

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Bad Airbnb experiences. What do you do? And how to avoid them.

We’re big fans of Airbnb, having averaged over 300 nights/year in Airbnb apartments over the last 5 years. During that time most of our experiences have been good, some even excellent. But recently we had a couple of bad Airbnb experiences. I’ll describe them below. So what do you do? And how do you avoid bad Airbnb stays? We learned a few things through our bad experiences and it’s changed some of our Airbnb practices going forward.

Antalya, Turkey

Our first bad experience was in Antalya. We booked a 2 week stay in this place. It looked and sounded promising. 3 bedrooms! 2 baths! We met Dina and first impressions were good. The place was huge and all 3 bedrooms had their own bed and working tables. The kitchen was spacious with lots of counter space. “This is great” we thought.

The negatives started to reveal themselves one by one. In the kitchen, utensils and glasses were dirty. The shelves were dusty and the contents old and disorderly. Pots were dirty, handles were loose. When it got dark, the only lights in the apartment were harsh, white overhead lights. But the worst was when we got ready for bed and pealed back the covering bed sheet. Bedsheets and blankets were pinned together with safety pins. Large safety pins on each corner of every bed. One of them was loose. Imagine sliding into bed and getting stabbed by a huge safety pin. Sheets and pillow cases were brittle, almost cardboard-ish in quality. But the worse was when we discovered that every bed (all sofa beds) had large uncomfortable seams down the middle.

Note: the worst is when hosts go cheap on bedding. Other things can be bad, but nothing is going to ruin a stay more than sleeping uncomfortably.

Turning off the lights we realized that the curtains didn’t block any outside light. Our street was on the main tram line, a brightly lit thoroughfare. It all streamed into the bedrooms.

Between the uncomfortable beds and the bright light streaming in we had 2 weeks of uncomfortable sleep.

The other issue was a front door lock that was difficult to open from the inside. It always required a lot of jiggling with the key and on one occasion I almost called Dina to get us out. Lissette stepped up and after a few minutes managed to open the lock. The door was clearly a fire hazard and from then on we only used the keychain when inside the apartment.

When our 2 weeks ended we debated on how to review Dina. She was a new Airbnb host, none of the faults of the apartment were egregious – they were mostly cleaning and maintenance issues. Overall the apartment could be fantastic. Dina also had a young daughter which I have to admit influenced us. We just felt that maybe she didn’t know any better and we didn’t want to be harsh.

We decided to focus on the positives in the public review. But in the private feedback I went into the detail on all the above, including being pretty direct about the bedding. “You should look at getting duvets, where you can slip the blanket between sheets. Using safety pins is dangerous”. I wrote her 3 long paragraphs on things she can do to improve her apartment.

Hosts always appreciate private feedback. Sometimes they have cleaners and don’t actually have a chance to verify an apartment before guests arrive. If you tell them that cleaning could be improved (for example), they’ll be happy to know about it.

In Dina’s case there didn’t seem to be any appreciation for my private feedback. She’s one of the few hosts that never bothered responding. I noticed however that she received a negative review shortly after we left, the reviewer touching on the same points that I had mentioned to her. So obviously she didn’t take any of our advice.

Our experience would be much worse in Yerevan Armenia.

Yerevan, Armenia

We had booked this apartment for a month.

Due to a few complications with trains and visas, we arrived in Yerevan 4 days into our booking. It was 7 am when we showed up, exhausted after an 11 hour train ride from Tbilisi.

The host was David, a young guy in his 20’s. The title of his Apartment is “NEW MODERN LUXURY Apartment in City Center!”. Totally misleading. The building was a Soviet-era highrise. Gas meters lined the entrance of the building, a leaking pipe wrapped with decomposing insulation (which looked suspiciously like asbestos) took up much of the ground floor. The entire building smelled, a deep noxious smell. Lissette thought it was cat pee. I think it was something more toxic.

The apartment itself was dusty and musty. It smelled of cigarette. Even the shelves in wardrobes were covered in dust, some also had spider webs in the corners. There were no cleaning products of any kind, not even dishwashing soap. The kitchen didn’t have even the most basic of necessities required of an Airbnb. Knives, forks and plates came from a children’s party set – all were miniature in size. There were 2 pots and a frying pan with a broken handle. There were no other utensils except for the miniature ones, no colander for pasta. It was bare bones. Items listed in the description were missing. There was no oven, there was no dryer.

But that was nothing compared to the bedroom. Blankets smelled. They obviously had not been cleaned. The pillows smelled and when we took off the pillowcases we saw yellowish pillows. The mattress was old…and when we laid on it we realized that the whole bed was broken. The thing jiggled like a waterbed and you could feel all the springs pocking you in the ribs. It was more than the mattress – looking under the 2 mattresses we saw that they were resting on top of a broken board. The bed was unsleepable. And the “sofa bed” listed in the living room (since changed in the description) was no sofa bed. It was a regular couch that reeked of cigarette smoke.

We called David back to the apartment. Showed him the layer of dust, gave him the blankets and asked him to clean them, showed him the bed and told him it was unacceptable. I asked him where we were supposed to dry our clothes. There was no dryer, no clothes rack, nothing…

I also contacted Airbnb (further below in this post I’ll give you their details. They do everything they can to avoid having to deal with you).

Making a long story short, the next day David came with some workmen and had a clothesline installed outside the window. The day after they came back and fixed the bed frame and threw out the broken mattress. We had tried sleeping on the broken bed for 3 nights and were exhausted by this point. Airbnb had communicated with us but except for saying all the right things, didn’t offer any concrete options. We were told if the matter was not resolved they would conduct a mediation between us and the host “to resolve the matter”. They sent me their Guest Refund Policy. 3 days later, with the bed (and a few minor items) taken care of Airbnb offered us a $100 Canadian credit for the inconvenience we had experienced.

We ended up staying in the apartment the whole month. With the fixes, it managed to be an “ok” apartment.

Lissette and I talked about the review we would leave David. We decided to be as factual as we could in our review, listing the Pros and the Cons (snapshot of our review here). But we had learned from our first experience with Dina – we didn’t spare David in our review and told it exactly how it was.

Wondering how to contact Airbnb if you have issues?

If you have issues with an apartment make sure to contact Airbnb within the first 24 hours.

The best toll-free phone number for calling Airbnb Customer Service is 1-855-424-7262  (the average wait time is between 7 and 12 minutes).

Another number that works well in the USA for local callers is 1-415-800-5959 

For UK callers, try 02033 181 111

The way Airbnb prefers to be contacted is via their messaging center, here: https://www.airbnb.com/help/contact_us

We’ve found contacting them through Twitter to be a good way: https://twitter.com/Airbnb

Questions raised from these bad Airbnb experiences

We’re really questioning reviews posted on Airbnb. Prior to our stay there were 6 reviews on the Yerevan apartment, all 5 star (ie. perfect) reviews. Really, how could this be possible? Did nobody sleep on that bed? Did nobody notice all the discrepancies listed on the description? Is it that nobody ever wants to say a bad word? Or do hosts have friends who leave reviews?

Have a look at this article questioning if Airbnb edits or deletes bad reviews. Or this Business Insider article questioning whether there’s a flaw in the Airbnb review process.

Our negative review on the Yerevan apartment is still there and we’re keeping an eye on it. But we had our own experience with the above. Back in 2015, the only other truly negative review we’ve ever left was deleted when Airbnb contacted us to tell us there was an inaccuracy in our review. In our review we had mentioned that there was no wifi in the apartment despite the description saying there was. Airbnb argued that when we had booked there was no wifi listed in the amenities and that wifi had been added after we had left. As I told them, that would mean that they had installed wifi in the 1 day between when we left the apartment and the next day when I wrote the review. I didn’t believe any of it. But it didn’t matter – Airbnb deleted my comment and a shitty apartment (which I wrote about here) continued having perfect 5 star reviews (Airbnb deems any comment having an inaccuracy as misleading and will delete the entire comment). It really made me wonder…

I wonder if people reading this have had similar experiences? Or similar doubts about how few negative reviews ever appear on Airbnb?

 

Things learned from these bad Airbnb experiences

Look for Superhosts with a lot of reviews. Both apartments above were run by young people with about 5 reviews each. That’s a small sample size. We’ve learned to no longer trust based on reviews alone.

Beware of hosts that come off as cheap. I mentioned that we arrived at the Yerevan apartment 4 days late. The original plan had been to arrive on the date of the booking but early in the morning. At that time David had mentioned that early check in would cost $10 extra. Considering we would be in his apartment a month I thought that was extremely cheap. It gave us a negative impression right off the bat. In our case the apartment was already booked – but if you’re looking to book an apartment and have questions about early check in, late check out, pickup, or anything else pay attention to how the host answers.

Photos lie. Look at the amenities in the profile. It’s happened a few times: you look at the photos in the profile and check off your list of “requirements”. Always make sure to compare the photos to what is mentioned in the list of amenities in the profile. We learned this recently in Corfu when we realized that the washing machine pictured in the images wasn’t functioning. Had we looked at the profile we would have realized that “washer” was no included in the amenities.

* note that amenities in descriptions can be inaccurate. I mentioned that the Yerevan apartment listed a dryer, an oven, and a sofa bed. All were inaccurate.

   

Read between the lines. I’ve listed a few bad Airbnb experiences above, but the reality is that 90% of our experiences have been either good (80%) or great (10%). I think the most important thing is to look at a lot of reviews (I mention Superhosts above with lots of reviews) and read between the lines of what people are saying. When people leave long, glowing reviews and show real affection for their host you just know that the host is exceptional. When I see reviews like that I jump to book that apartment. They’re few and far between but we’ve met some fantastic Airbnb hosts through our travels who’ve made a destination special. Because, as we’ve learned, your accommodation experience will always affect how you end up feeling about a place.

 

Leave more honest reviews. This is the thing we really learned from the two experiences above. As I say, we’ve had mostly good to great experiences on Airbnb. Still, there’s usually at least 1 or 2 little things wrong with an apartment that we’ve sometimes glossed over in the review, usually because a) everything else was good or b) we like the host and don’t want to be negative. From now on, we’ll leave PRO and CONS on a review as we did on David’s while keeping the tone neutral. We’ll be 100% brutally honest. Why be honest about reviews? 1) Because it actually helps potential guests who read reviews. 2) it helps hosts – because truly good hosts should be differentiated from mediocre hosts (stars no longer seem to count). But what we really learned from the two experiences above is that some hosts really don’t care about your experience or your feedback. And if they don’t care, we won’t spare their feelings when it comes to reviewing them. 3) Because we’re sick of reading wishy-washy reviews that don’t help anybody. If people left honest reviews we, and others, would never stay in apartments like the above.

Our issues were relatively minor. Have a look here at some real Airbnb horror stories.

Do you have Airbnb stories of your own? Feel free to share them below.

The post Bad Airbnb experiences appeared first on The Travels of BBQboy and Spanky.

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Visiting Georgia’s far north was the highlight of our visit to the country. I didn’t know this before coming here, but the highest mountains on the Georgia/Russia border (the Great Caucasus Mountains) are higher than any mountain in Western Europe. The highest mountain in the Alps is Mont Blanc at 4,810 meters – there are 6 mountains in the Great Caucasus Mountains that are higher than Mont Blanc*.

* When Googling the Highest Mountains in Europe I came across this site. It says that 8 of the 10 highest mountains in Europe are in the Great Caucasus Mountains. That’s disputable because the Great Caucasus mountains are not considered by most people to be in Europe (I wrote about that here). But it just gives you an idea of the stature of the mountains in this range.

Historically the mountains are relevant because they formed a natural barrier between Russia and what was then a region divided between the Ottoman and the Persian Empires. I know people get bored by history but I touched on history on my 1st Tbilisi post.

Anyway, this was our 2nd day with Arara Tours and the itinerary called for an excursion up north culminating in Stepantsminda (also known as Kazbegi), a resort town 20 km from the Russian border. There were some incredible sights and scenery on the way which you’ll see in this post.

 Zhinvali Reservoir and Ananuri Fortress

Slightly over an hour north of Tbilisi you arrive at the Zhinvali Reservoir. It is one of Georgia’s largest water reservoirs and home to a large hydroelectric dam.  It’s also beautiful, a mix of turquoise water and green hills.


5 minutes away is Ananuri Fortress. Built in the 13th century, it is a fortress with 2 churches and a defensive tower. The Fortress used to be the seat of the (dukes) of Aragvi and overlooked a village that lay beneath the fortress (ruins of which are submerged under the waters of the reservoir). In the 1700’s the fortress was invaded by a rival duchy and the Aragvi clan was massacred. Funny enough, 4 years later the townspeople revolted against their new rulers and killed them all. The fortress remained in use until the beginning of the 19th century. 

It’s an impressive fortress but it is the reservoir in the background that makes it such a stunning tourist highlight. It’s one of Georgia’s most touristed sites. If you’re climbing the tower be very careful as there are no handrails or security of any kind. Tip: the best views are not at the top. They’re on the level below looking through the windows.

Georgian Military Road

The road continues north from the Ananuri Fortress. It is called the Georgian Military Road although I wonder if it should be called the Russian Military Road.  The road (as a real “road”) was built starting in 1799 by the Russians and resulted in Russian influence across the mountains, eventually  allowing them to take over the region from the Ottomans and Persians.

The road leads from Vladikavkaz in Russian to Tbilisi, a 212 km road that reaches a maximum altitude of 2,379 meters (7,815 feet) at the Jvari Pass, located close to the Georgia -Russian friendship monument (which I’ll cover soon). The road is known as one of the most beautiful mountain roads in the world.

Georgia – Russia Friendship Monument

This monument, built off one of the most scenic spots on the Georgian Military Road, is about an hour from the Ananuri Fortress. By then you have left the hills behind and are in the Great Caucasus Mountains. The monument was built in 1983 to celebrate the Treaty of Georgievsk (the 1783 treaty that made Georgia a protectorate of Russia). The monument has beautiful tilework – half of it depicting Georgian history (the left side), the other side (right side) depicting Russian history.

See this short video that I made featuring all the highlights of the day.

A daytrip in Northern Georgia - YouTube

 

Stepantsminda (Kazbegi)

Continuing north half an hour, we arrived in Stepantsminda (also known as Kazbegi), a resort town in the shadows of the mountains. Close by is Mount Kazbek. At 5,033m it is the 5th highest mountains in the Great Caucasus Mountains. Just behind the town is Mount Shani (4,451m high). In Georgia’s far north, Stepantsminda is about 20 km from the Russian border.

Here the tour stopped for lunch at the beautiful Rooms Hotel Kazbegi. It’s a beautiful hotel with rooms starting in the 150 USD range. But it is phenomenal in every respect and if you want a romantic stay I would recommend it as a place to spend a weekend. I mentioned in the last post that the two favorite activities of our tour group were eating and going to the bathroom. We had a 2 hour meal, drinking wine and enjoy the huge terrace of the hotel.

Gergeti Trinity Church

This church is the highlight in the Stepantsminda area. It requires a 15 minute drive up a mountain, requiring a car or van with a strong motor (our guide Sisi had arranged for a jeep).

Gergeti Trinity Church was built in the 14th century. It is regarded as one of the world most beautiful churches because of its incredible location. It has always been a highly regarded and whenever Georgia was in danger important religious relics would be brought to this church for safekeeping.

Gergeti Trinity Church would have been the last activity of the day but one of the members of the group decided that he wanted to paraglide (the place to do it is right by the Georgia – Russia Friendship Monument). It gave us all one more opportunity to enjoy the mountain views. We then drove the approximately 2 ½ hours back to Tbilisi.

Summarizing our Day

It was a very long day, starting at 9 am from Tbilisi and returning at 8 pm. As I say up top, it was a phenomenal day with spectacular views. It was the highlight of our month-long stay in Georgia. I would recommend to anyone coming to this country that the itinerary I’ve spelled out above is a must-do activity.

The above tour was Day 7 of Arara Tours 8 day Armenia & Georgia Classical Tour Package. Look out for my next post of this tour where we visited the wine growing region in Eastern Georgia.

Thanks for Reading!

The post Visiting Georgia’s Far North appeared first on The Travels of BBQboy and Spanky.

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We rarely ever take tours but Georgia is one of those countries where taking a tour is the best way to see the many highlights spread out around the country
. We chose to do our tour with Arara Tours, an Armenian company that we had previously worked with. They do an 8 day Best of Armenia & Georgia tour and they invited us to join the Georgia segment of their tour. We were pretty excited. The 1st day of our tour would be spent exploring the highlights in and around Tbilisi.

It was a small group made up of 5 travellers from Australia, South Africa and the UK. For them this was day 6 of an intensive tour that had started in Armenia (everyone was very quick to tell us how much they loved the Armenia portion of the tour). The previous day they had driven up from Yerevan and switched vans and guides at the border. We were introduced to Sisi, a young lady in her early 30’s who would be our guide over the next 3 days.

Highlights around Tblisi

Jvari Temple

Driving out of the city in our air-conditioned minivan, the first stop was at Jvari Temple. Located on a hilltop about 20 km out of Tbilisi,  Jvari is a former monastery dating from the 6th century and is a pilgrimage site, a place known for producing miracles. It is a typical Georgian “four-apsed church with four niches” (“who cares” you ask? Well, both Armenia and Georgia do as they both claim to have invented the “four-apsed church with four niches” form of church). Besides the temple itself, Jvari has great views overlooking the confluence of two rivers and the town of Mtskheta, the first capital of Georgia (Jvari Temple, along with Mtskheta, are UNESCO world heritage sites).

Mtskheta

We drove down the hill to Mtskheta. It was the first capital of Georgia between the 3rd century BC and the 5th century AD. It is Georgia’s “Holy City”, the place where Christianity in Georgia has its origins. Mtskheta is home to the incredible Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, the 2nd largest church in Georgia (the largest is the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi, a modern church which in all honesty doesn’t compare at all to Svetitskhoveli).

The Cathedral is where many Georgian monarchs have been buried. Also (supposedly) buried within the Cathedral is the robe of Jesus brought to Georgia from Jerusalem. The Cathedral is impressive with many features including the replica of Jerusalem’s Chapel of Holy Sepulchre. It also has frescoes dating back from the 13th century – the Cathedral used to be full of frescoes but the Russians whitewashed them in the 1830’s because they were deemed “messy”. Svetitskhoveli is a very impressive cathedral.


Below: If you like stalls selling lots of tourist stuff, you’ll find lots of it in Mtskheta

  Highlights in Tblisi

Having visited Jvari Temple and Mtskheta, we headed back to Tbilisi for a city tour. Lissette and I had spent 2 weeks in Tbilisi so we know the city quite well. Read here about our impressions and observations on the city. But we were interested to see how a tour would cover the highlights of Tbilisi in one afternoon.

We headed to Metekhi church. Built on a promontory on the river, the site has great views over all of Tbilisi. You’ll see the statue of King Vakhtang Gorgasali, he is credited with the reorganization of the Georgian Orthodox Church and with the founding of Tbilisi as the capital in the 5th century (the capital was moved from Mtskheta because Tbilisi was deemed easier to defend from invaders). The church itself has been destroyed many times and the version that stands today has been restored mostly in brick.

A 5 minute walk from Metekhi church takes you to the cable car station in Rike park. It’s a fun, scenic ride over the river with 360 degree views over the city. Definitely a highlight in Tbilisi.

Below: a video showing highlights of the Cable car ride up Sololaki Hill

Taking the Cable Car in Tbilisi, Georgia - YouTube

 

Arriving at the top of the hill is “Kartlis Deda”, the Mother of Georgia statue. She symbolizes the Georgian national character: in her left hand she holds a bowl of wine to greet those who come as friends, and in her right hand is a sword for those who come as enemies. The statue was raised in 1958, the year that Tbilisi celebrated its 1500th anniversary.

The views of Tbilisi from the hill are phenomenal and you’ll be able to see first hand the mix of architectural styles in the city

Following the path down from the cable car station you’ll get different perspectives of the city. You’ll get to the gate of Narikala fortress. We didn’t go in (a few of the members of our group had mobility issues and there’s a bit of a climb up to enter) but for those with a bit more time I would recommend going into the grounds of the fortress. There’s not that much to see but you can climb further up the hill for a whole other perspective on the fortress and the city. Note: I’ll be writing a City Guide on Tbilisi for those who have more time to explore the city.

It was time for a lunch. Tour groups seem to enjoy their 2-hour lunch breaks. I always say that tour groups are like kids at summer camp – the highlight always seems to be snacks and lunch and they’ll always be someone complaining about how hungry they are or how they have to go to the bathroom. We were taken to Restaurant Maspindzelo in the old town – good restaurant but service took forever and there seemed to be a lot of confusion about who ordered what…

By the time we had finished lunch it was 4 pm and a couple of the members of the tour decided to go back to their hotels. It was a hot day and a few people didn’t feel well.

Sisi took the rest of us on a walking tour of the Old Town. The “tourist trail”(as I call it) starts at the corner of Nikoloz Baratashvili St and Ioane Shaveteli St. (which is a small alley with tourist sites, street art, and lots of little cafés and restaurants where you can stop for a glass of wine). You’ll come across the Rezo Gabriadze Marionette Theatre (a quirky building with a clock where an angel rings the hour), and the Anchiskhati Basilica (the oldest surviving church in Tbilisi. Quite impressive). Walking further, you’ll see the modern Bridge of Peace (built in 2010), one of Tbilisi’s most identifiable highlights. Continuing along, you arrive at The Sioni Cathedral in the heart of the Old Town (also very much worth a visit).

Behind Tbilisi’s Suphur baths is a spring that flows between a mini-canyon. It’s a bit of an odd geographical feature made stranger by the fact that it’s steps away from the old town. It culminates at a waterfall (Leghvtakhevi waterfall), which flows from Tbilisi’s Botanical Gardens (which are above the old town next to the Narikala fortress). This was the last stop on our walking tour of the old town.

Summarizing our day

It was a full day of sightseeing (we started the day at 9:30 and finished around 7 pm). We saw a lot, much more than Lissette and I would ever see on our own. As independent travellers we are always having to do our own planning and our own arrangements and in Georgia doing it on your own is not something I would recommend (in Tbilisi yes, but not outside).  Taking a tour and letting someone else handle the logistics was a huge relief. That alone made our day very enjoyable. The other thing about tours is that the tour is often as good as the other travellers you’re with. It can be pretty shitty if you’re stuck with the wrong people. On this tour we were lucky to meet some nice people that we instantly connected to. 

The above tour was Day 6 of Arara Tours 8 day Armenia & Georgia Classical Tour Package. Look out for my next post of this tour where we visited the mountains on the Georgia/Russia border. It was..

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Last weekend we were profiled on Postmedia newspapers – the article below was published in the Vancouver Sun, Toronto Sun and Edmonton Journal. It is entitled “How Two Canadians are travelling the world cheaply”. We were thrilled to get such Canada-wide coverage.

You can click above to see any of the online versions. Otherwise I’ve included a copy of the article below.

A few background articles to “How Two Canadians are travelling the world cheaply”

In the article I refer to some places and events. I’m linking a few articles for those looking for a bit more detail on various aspects of our travels.

On living a year in Croatia. We had visited Croatia 3 times and decided we wanted to stay longer. We even entertained the idea of working towards Permanent Residency. Anyone even thinking of staying a year in Croatia should have a look at this post on how to get Temporary Residence in Croatia. In the end, extending past 1 year wasn’t for us and we wrote about it: the complications of working towards permanent residency in Croatia.

My 2 years as a child expat covers the years I lived in Zambia and how the experience changed me.

Random acts of Kindness when you travel covers some of the incredible generosity we’ve encountered travelling, including my story about meeting those two men in Sarajevo.

A recurring theme is how we travel. We’re “slow travellers”, usually staying somewhere at least a month. A post here on what slow travel is and why it’s how we travel.

Downs and Ups in Eastern Europe. I mention our negative experience in Poland. I wrote about that in detail here: Why a month in Poland was enough for us not to come back. We then went to Ukraine, which we loved. Lviv was our highlight destination in 2018, I questioned here whether it’s Europe’s most underrated city. We then went to Kiev (Kyiv) which really impressed us. About Kyiv and its attractions here.

I also mentioned being “taxed” in Marrakech in this post: My 5 week Morocco itinerary. And on dealing with liars, scammers and bullshit. Morrocco is beautiful (and I’ll probably be back with Lissette one day) but I have a love/hate relationship with it.

I mention solo trips and “El Chepe” in Northern Mexico. I wrote about it here: Why Riding El Chepe through Copper Canyon is just mind-blowingly amazing. I saw a lot of beauty. North Americans should discover more of Mexico – my mom lives in Mexico and I’ve been lucky enough to discover much of the country over the last 6 years.

There are quite a lot of destinations I mention in “How Two Canadians are travelling the world cheaply”, they can easily be found under the destinations tab above. 

Thanks for Reading!

The post “How Two Canadians are travelling the world cheaply” – our latest article published by Postmedia appeared first on The Travels of BBQboy and Spanky.

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Is Tbilisi really a place you want to visit? What’s Tbilisi like, I mean really like?
 

We spent a month in Tbilisi, discovering the city and the Georgian countryside. It’s a complicated country with a complicated history. Here are some things you should know about Tbilisi (and Georgia) along with some impressions and observations.

First a brief history

– Previously a mix of different states and Kingdoms, the Kingdom of Georgia emerged in the 10th century. That lasted until the 12th century, when the Kingdom fell to the Mongols. Over the next 500 years the region struggled with neighbouring Ottomans and Persians and was often a battleground between these great powers. Struggling to maintain their religion (Christianity), Georgians were persecuted. The region was a backwater, poverty was high and the population of the cities declined as people left.

– By the 18th century Russia became a power. The next hundred years brought more conflict as the 3 powers (Ottomans, Russians, and Persians) vied for control. In 1795 the Persians burned Tbilisi to the ground. Finally in 1805 the Russians took control. Georgia was reunited but had lost its independence.

– From 1805 to its independence in 1991 (with a brief 3 year interruption in 1917 when the Russian Revolution erupted) Georgia was under Russian/Soviet rule in one form or another. Corruption, power and language issues (Georgians have their own unique language) often resulted in demonstrations and clashes.

– In 1991 a referendum on Independence from Russia was held. 99% of the population wanted independence and formal independence was declared on April 9, 1991.

– Independence was not well received in 2 regions of Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) which resulted in wars between Georgian troops and separatists supported by Russia. The latest flareup was in 2008. The two breakaway regions are considered part of Georgia by most of the world community. It is a continuing source of friction between Russia and Georgia (which sees the regions as Russian-occupied territories). Georgia’s pro-Western, pro-USA government has also fuelled friction with Moscow.

Above: Liberty Square

Impressions and Observations (in no particular order)

Which continent? Georgia is geographically in Asia because technically Europe ends at the Bosporus in Turkey. Culturally though, it is much more European than Asian so some people mistakenly classify it as a European country. Some also classify it as Eurasian (which encompasses both Europe and Asia). That’s too vague in my opinion. For the purposes of this blog I classify it as being in the Caucasus region, a clearly defined (non-continental) area comprising of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and southern Russia.

Source

Unique language and script. Georgia has a unique language which dates back to the 5th century but which has evolved with time. First time visitors will be confused when they see the script: ქართული ენა (meaning “Georgian language”). When we first saw it we thought it looked like Cambodian. It’s different than any other language we’ve seen in Europe (lucky for visitors most signs are bilingual in Georgian and English)

Ties with the USA. One of the first unusual sights you’ll see coming in from the airport is the photo above on one of its busy streets. Yes, George W Bush actually has a street named after him. A nearby road is John Shalikashvili Avenue, named after the son of a Georgian prince who rose to become chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. The US Embassy in Tbilisi is huge with more than 400 employees showing what an import stronghold in the region this is for the US government.

Language. Reading other blogs we thought language would be an issue coming to this region. Although older people speak both Georgian and Russian, younger people are taught English at school rather than Russian and we’ve been struck by how well they speak it. So if you’re a traveller wondering how you’ll get by in English you don’t have to worry.

Above: Rustaveli Avenue

What’s Tbilisi like? Rustaveli Avenue is the main avenue in Tbilisi and is lined by trees and impressive buildings dating from the mid-19th century as well as some churches and monuments. The sidewalks are wide and filled with people – we felt as if we could be walking through any attractive European city. Old Tbilisi is different, a jumble of small streets, crumbled sidewalks and tattered buildings. It also has a few popular streets full of restaurants and vendors selling paintings and souvenirs. You’ll also find some of Tbilisi’s oldest churches in this area. We weren’t a big fan of the area, finding it too busy and too commercial for our taste. Across the river, which you can cross on the modern pedestrian-only Bridge of Peace, you’ll find some modern architecture as well as the cable car that takes you back across the river and up to Narikala fortress. The views up there are great.
Overall Tbilisi is a mix of architectural styles and influences. It doesn’t always blend very well but it is overall an attractive city.

Below: the mix of old and new in Tbilisi


World’s oldest wine?
Georgia and Armenia argue about this. In Armenia there is proof of wine having been produced 6100 years ago. Georgia claims that wine was produced 8000 years ago, however no concrete proof exists. Either way, Georgia has a very strong wine culture.

Above: Churchkhela hanging in store front in Old Tbilisi

Unique food. Georgia has food that you won’t see anywhere else. See here for a post on various Georgian foods. Some of the most unusual are Khachapuri (a cheese bread topped with a yolky egg that is stirred in), Khinkali (Georgian style dumplings which you can find stuffed with meat and/or vegetables), and Churchkhela (a candy filled with walnuts that’s dipped in thickened juices and left to dry). Lissette and I both loved Khinkali and Churchkhela, but weren’t so fond of Khachapuri (found it too salty).

Above: mural depicting everything Georgian including stray dog (and tag)

Stray dogs. You’ll see a lot of stray dogs in Tbilisi. Most have a tag on one ear, indicating they’ve been vaccinated as well as spayed/neutered. They seem generally very well behaved and well fed. But there’s lots of them and I can’t imagine how many get hit by cars. I swear, you’ll want to adopt a dog in Tbilisi.

Driving. Speaking of the above, there’s a lot of really bad driving in Georgia (as well as Armenia). And judging by the empty shell of cars you’ll sometimes see on the side of the road, there are lots of accidents (just a few days ago in Yerevan we saw 2 accidents – on a Sunday which goes to show there’s no such thing as a “Sunday Driver” in this region).

Friendliness. We found locals friendly and curious in Tbilisi and it was a relief for us after our month in Antalya (Turkey) where we didn’t find the locals very friendly or polite. People are family and community-orientated and we just felt very safe in our neighborhood.

Above: views from St. Trinity Cathedral

Hills. Think of Tbilisi as a city built along the length of a river (the Mtkvari River). On either side are hills, all presenting great vantage points of the city. 3 great places to enjoy the views are from the hill where Narikala fortress is located (accessible by cable car), Mtatsminda Park (accessible by funicular) and from St. Trinity Cathedral (not as high as the other vantage points but still good for views).

Above: Views from Mtatsminda Park

Funky. Young people are funky, dressing in various styles. By “funky” I mean they’re not cookie-cutter conformists that you’ll see in many places (sorry Croatia, but you come to mind). People are creative in the way they dress. In a region that was under Communist rule for so long it is interesting to see how younger people are expressing themselves.

Bumpers. What’s that? Back to driving – we’ve never seen as many cars driving around without bumpers, both in Georgia and Armenia. We asked Arthur our guide at Arara Tours (a quick plug because they’re great) and he said that it’s legal to drive around without a bumper so “why not”? He shrugged and smiled.

Above: heavy rain in our courtyard in Tbilisi

Wooden Courtyards. A unique characteristic of Tbilisi buildings are the large inner courtyards that you’ll find when walking in from the street. The courtyards are often community courtyards and you’ll have the neighbouring kids from the various buildings adjoining the courtyard playing there. Adults tend to get together and talk and smoke (lots of smoking in Georgia. Lots).

Our Airbnb. Speaking of apartments and courtyards, we stayed in a beautiful Airbnb while in Tbilisi which had an inner courtyard. Very, very nice people.

Above: Sulphur Baths in Tbilisi

Sulphur Baths. The Old Town has numerous places where you can experience a Sulphur bath and a massage. All are unisex. The “best baths” according to our guide are the Orbeliani Baths. See this post by the Jetsetting Fools which covers a sulphur bath experience (not Orbeliani Baths) and what you can expect.

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Istanbul didn’t disappoint.
I had long wanted to come here, if fact we had planned to come to Istanbul several times – each time something was brewing (a terrorist attack or a coup) and we ended up cancelling. But in 2019 Istanbul seems safer than ever and in April we were happy to finally explore the city.

There’s lots to see in Istanbul. In fact you might find yourself trying to figure out exactly what you should see during your limited time. That’s what this post is about: while there’s lots to see there were also a few disappointments.

First, here are a few of our favorite photos from a week spent in Istanbul. Scroll down further and I’ll break down what to see (and what to skip) in Istanbul.

Above: Hagia Sophia Museum

Above: Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque)

Above: Spice Market

Above: Grand Bazaar

Above: Galata Bridge

Above: Galata Tower

Above: Basilica Cistern

Above: Balat Phanar Greek Orthodox College in Balat neighborhood

Above: Ortaköy Mosque

Above: Chora Museum

Above: Dolmabahçe Palace

Above: Hippodrome

Above: Panorama 1453 Museum

What you HAVE to See

Hagia Sophia. Istanbul’s highlight attraction. Originally built in 537 AD it was a Greek Orthodox Church that was converted to a mosque when the Ottomans conquered Istanbul. It is an incredible building and was the largest Cathedral in the world for 1000 years (until Seville Cathedral was built in 1520).

Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque)*. After Hagia Sohia, this is the most recognized building in Istanbul. Built between 1609 – 1616, it dominates Istanbul’s skyline with its domes (5 large, 8 smaller) and 6 minarets. Why is it called the Blue Mosque? It’s because of the hand-painted blue tiles that adorn the mosque’s interior walls. You’ll notice the asterisk above: unfortunately the Blue Mosque is undergoing massive renovations in 2019 and when we were there much of the interior was covered up. We were very disappointed.

Grand Bazaar. A huge covered market (with about 4000 stores) where you’ll see all the kind of goods you’d expect to see in Turkey (carpets, lamps, ceramic plates, sweets…). But it’s not just the things that are for sale – the market building was built over 500 years ago and has columns, vaults, porticos, and marble fountains along its 61 “streets”. It’s just a great place to wander around and take some photos.

Süleymaniye Mosque. An unexpected surprise – this mosque is the 2nd largest in Istanbul. The interior is colourful and light with its many stained-glass windows. Outside, the mosque has wonderful views over Istanbul and the Bosporus strait (see the photo at the very top of this post).

Ortaköy Mosque. It’s a bit far to get to (requiring a combination of tram and bus) but the mosque is magnificent and the setting along the Bosporus impressive. It’s also a good place to come for a Kumpir (a baked potato in which they stuff anything you want. Quite good).

Galata Bridge. The historic link between Old Istanbul and New Istanbul on the other side of the strait. You’ll see ferries and cargo ships making their way across the Bosporus and fishermen casting their lines off the edge of the bridge. There are great views in every direction. The Galata Bridge is where you really feel the life of Istanbul.

Spice Market. We loved the colour and smells of this market (located right next to the Galata bridge). A good place to pick up spices and teas that you’ll have a hard time finding anywhere else.

Recommendations on where to Stay: Yılsam Sultanahmet Hotel (extremely good value, well-located), Golden Royal Hotel (a modern comfortable hotel at mid-level prices next to tram line), Fer Hotel (a bit more high end, beautiful, well-located hotel). Have a look at the deals finder below for the hottest deals:



Booking.com

Things also worth seeing (secondary)

The Hippodrome. Located right next to the Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome was an oval shaped racetrack where sports (like chariot races) and cultural events were held. It dates back to 324 AD (during the time of the Byzantine empire). At that time the Hippodrome was the center of social life in the city and was lined was statues and monuments. Unfortunately not much of all that is left (the Ottomans weren’t interested in horse racing). There are just a few monuments, like a Serpent Column (dating from the 5th century) and several Obelisks (one, dating from the ancient Egyptians, is estimated to date from 1490 BC).

Basilica Cistern. This cistern, built as a reservoir of water under the ground, was built in the 6th century. It is incredible: a space of 9,800 square meters (105,000 square feet) capable of holding 80,000 cubic meters (2,800,000 cubic feet) of water). The ceiling is held up by 336 marble columns, each 9 meters (30 feet) high. The 2 upside-down Medusa Columns are the best known of the columns – the origins are unknown and were probably taken from a Roman-era building. It’s a phenomenal accomplishment, the only negative are the hordes of tourists taking selfies in a crowded, darkly lit place. It’s the only reason why I don’t have it as a MUST see highlight.

Galata Tower. Located across the river, the tower was built by the Genoese in 1348 and was at the time the highest building in Istanbul. It has great views of the whole city. Is it worth going up? (there’s an elevator). Maybe, if you don’t mind waiting in line and then jostling with other tourists taking selfies at the very crowded top. If you do decide to do it come very early.

Istikal Street. A large pedestrian street that’s 1.4 kilometers long and lined with shops, cafés, restaurants as well as some churches (the most impressive being Saint Anthony of Padua church). It is one of Istanbul’s most famous avenues and has nice interesting buildings (in European architectural styles) as well as historical trams. Worth seeing but I wouldn’t put it too high on your list.

Dolmabahçe Palace. This is the largest palace in Turkey, built between 1853 – 1856 as a more modern home to Istanbul’s sultans (who’s previous residence had been the Topkapi Palace). It is a very European-style palace with some incredible rooms and gardens. Is it worth visiting? If you like palaces, with period furniture and paintings etc you’ll love it. Maybe we’ve seen too many palaces. Our hearts weren’t into this one (although a few of the rooms really did wow us).

Panorama1453 Museum. Located out of the way, the highlight of this museum is the 360 panorama depicting the fight for Constantinople between the Turks and the Byzantines in 1453. The history is interesting (although biased towards the Turks), the only negative are the informative placards which don’t seem to be in any kind of order…worth visiting however.

Balat neighbourhood. This used to be Istanbul’s former Jewish and Greek Orthodox neighbourhood, today it is full of trendy cafés and colourful, dilapidated buildings. Highlights include the Phanar Greek Orthodox College and the Yavuz Selim Mosque. A nice out-of-the-way neighbourhood to explore.

Above: Istikal Street and the historic trams

Things to Skip

Rustem Pasha Mosque. Under restoration in April 2019 and was totally boarded up when we arrived (a lot of Istanbul’s highlights seem to be under restoration). I’m told that it is ordinarily a beautiful mosque. Have a look at the latest Trip Advisor reviews before planning a visit. At the pace of current restoration it might be a very long time before it is open to visitors…

Chora Museum. I have rarely seen Lissette so angry. 45 Lira each (about $10 CAD) to get into this small Byzantine church. Yes, there are some beautiful murals…but the whole exterior of the church is covered in scaffolding (more restorations) as well as parts of the interior. For the price this is a total rip off.

Taksim Square. One of Istanbul’s most famous squares. There’s a large monument (the Republic Monument built to commemorate the formation of the Turkish Republic in 1923) but honestly the square is boring and an eyesore.

You may want to visit…

The Topkapi Palace. The Former Palace of the Sultans dating from the 15th century to the middle of the 19th century (when the Sultan’s residence changed to the Dolmabahçe Palace). The highlight is the Harem quarters and the views over the Bosporus. We had planned on going but balked when seeing the long line ups and crowds. As previously mentioned, we’ve just about had it with palaces. You might feel otherwise though…

Above: Hagia Sophia from the outside

Impressions and Comparisons

Istanbul is a busy, hectic place that assaults every sense. I only booked a week here because it’s not the kind of city that we usually like. But we enjoyed our time and never got bored. It’s a stimulating city on many levels.

Something about Istanbul reminds me of Bangkok (a Middle Eastern version of Bangkok). That may sound a bit bizarre. I think it’s the energy and the people as well as the water: both cities revolved around a busy river or a strait. Likewise both cities are hard to navigate unless you use the most modern modes of transport: in Bangkok it’s the Skytrain, in Istanbul it’s the T1 tram line. This super modern tram line will take you to most of the points of interest as a tourist. Just..

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What’s Tblisi like, I mean really like?
 

We spent a month in Tblisi, discovering the city and the Georgian countryside. It’s a complicated country with a complicated history. Here are some things you should know about Tblisi (and Georgia) along with some impressions and observations.

First a brief history

– Previously a mix of different states and Kingdoms, the Kingdom of Georgia emerged in the 10th century. That lasted until the 12th century, when the Kingdom fell to the Mongols. Over the next 500 years the region struggled with neighbouring Ottomans and Persians and was often a battleground between these great powers. Struggling to maintain their religion (Christianity), Georgians were persecuted. The region was a backwater, poverty was high and the population of the cities declined as people left.

– By the 18th century Russia became a power. The next hundred years brought more conflict as the 3 powers (Ottomans, Russians, and Persians) vied for control. In 1795 the Persians burned Tblisi to the ground. Finally in 1805 the Russians took control. Georgia was reunited but had lost its independence.

– From 1805 to its independence in 1991 (with a brief 3 year interruption in 1917 when the Russian Revolution erupted) Georgia was under Russian/Soviet rule in one form or another. Corruption, power and language issues (Georgians have their own unique language) often resulted in demonstrations and clashes.

– In 1991 a referendum on Independence from Russia was held. 99% of the population wanted independence and formal independence was declared on April 9, 1991.

– Independence was not well received in 2 regions of Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) which resulted in wars between Georgian troops and separatists supported by Russia. The latest flareup was in 2008. The two breakaway regions are considered part of Georgia by most of the world community. It is a continuing source of friction between Russia and Georgia (which sees the regions as Russian-occupied territories). Georgia’s pro-Western, pro-USA government has also fuelled friction with Moscow.

Above: Liberty Square

Impressions and Observations (in no particular order)

Which continent? Georgia is geographically in Asia because technically Europe ends at the Bosporus in Turkey. Culturally though, it is much more European than Asian so some people mistakenly classify it as a European country. Some also classify it as Eurasian (which encompasses both Europe and Asia). That’s too vague in my opinion. For the purposes of this blog I classify it as being in the Caucasus region, a clearly defined (non-continental) area comprising of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and southern Russia.

Source

Unique language and script. Georgia has a unique language which dates back to the 5th century but which has evolved with time. First time visitors will be confused when they see the script: ქართული ენა (meaning “Georgian language”). When we first saw it we thought it looked like Cambodian. It’s different than any other language we’ve seen in Europe (lucky for visitors most signs are bilingual in Georgian and English)

Ties with the USA. One of the first unusual sights you’ll see coming in from the airport is the photo above on one of its busy streets. Yes, George W Bush actually has a street named after him. A nearby road is John Shalikashvili Avenue, named after the son of a Georgian prince who rose to become chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. The US Embassy in Tblisi is huge with more than 400 employees showing what an import stronghold in the region this is for the US government.

Language. Reading other blogs we thought language would be an issue coming to this region. Although older people speak both Georgian and Russian, younger people are taught English at school rather than Russian and we’ve been struck by how well they speak it. So if you’re a traveller wondering how you’ll get by in English you don’t have to worry.

Above: Rustaveli Avenue

What’s Tblisi like? Rustaveli Avenue is the main avenue in Tblisi and is lined by trees and impressive buildings dating from the mid-19th century as well as some churches and monuments. The sidewalks are wide and filled with people – we felt as if we could be walking through any attractive European city. Old Tblisi is different, a jumble of small streets, crumbled sidewalks and tattered buildings. It also has a few popular streets full of restaurants and vendors selling paintings and souvenirs. You’ll also find some of Tblisi’s oldest churches in this area. We weren’t a big fan of the area, finding it too busy and too commercial for our taste. Across the river, which you can cross on the modern pedestrian-only Bridge of Peace, you’ll find some modern architecture as well as the cable car that takes you back across the river and up to Narikala fortress. The views up there are great.
Overall Tblisi is a mix of architectural styles and influences. It doesn’t always blend very well but it is overall an attractive city.

Below: the mix of old and new in Tblisi


World’s oldest wine?
Georgia and Armenia argue about this. In Armenia there is proof of wine having been produced 6100 years ago. Georgia claims that wine was produced 8000 years ago, however no concrete proof exists. Either way, Georgia has a very strong wine culture.

Above: Churchkhela hanging in store front in Old Tblisi

Unique food. Georgia has food that you won’t see anywhere else. See here for a post on various Georgian foods. Some of the most unusual are Khachapuri (a cheese bread topped with a yolky egg that is stirred in), Khinkali (Georgian style dumplings which you can find stuffed with meat and/or vegetables), and Churchkhela (a candy filled with walnuts that’s dipped in thickened juices and left to dry). Lissette and I both loved Khinkali and Churchkhela, but weren’t so fond of Khachapuri (found it too salty).

Above: mural depicting everything Georgian including stray dog (and tag)

Stray dogs. You’ll see a lot of stray dogs in Tblisi. Most have a tag on one ear, indicating they’ve been vaccinated as well as spayed/neutered. They seem generally very well behaved and well fed. But there’s lots of them and I can’t imagine how many get hit by cars. I swear, you’ll want to adopt a dog in Tblisi.

Driving. Speaking of the above, there’s a lot of really bad driving in Georgia (as well as Armenia). And judging by the empty shell of cars you’ll sometimes see on the side of the road, there are lots of accidents (just a few days ago in Yerevan we saw 2 accidents – on a Sunday which goes to show there’s no such thing as a “Sunday Driver” in this region).

Friendliness. We found locals friendly and curious in Tblisi and it was a relief for us after our month in Antalya (Turkey) where we didn’t find the locals very friendly or polite. People are family and community-orientated and we just felt very safe in our neighborhood.

Above: views from St. Trinity Cathedral

Hills. Think of Tblisi as a city built along the length of a river (the Mtkvari River). On either side are hills, all presenting great vantage points of the city. 3 great places to enjoy the views are from the hill where Narikala fortress is located (accessible by cable car), Mtatsminda Park (accessible by funicular) and from St. Trinity Cathedral (not as high as the other vantage points but still good for views).

Above: Views from Mtatsminda Park

Funky. Young people are funky, dressing in various styles. By “funky” I mean they’re not cookie-cutter conformists that you’ll see in many places (sorry Croatia, but you come to mind). People are creative in the way they dress. In a region that was under Communist rule for so long it is interesting to see how younger people are expressing themselves.

Bumpers. What’s that? Back to driving – we’ve never seen as many cars driving around without bumpers, both in Georgia and Armenia. We asked Arthur our guide at Arara Tours (a quick plug because they’re great) and he said that it’s legal to drive around without a bumper so “why not”? He shrugged and smiled.

Above: heavy rain in our courtyard in Tblisi

Wooden Courtyards. A unique characteristic of Tblisi buildings are the large inner courtyards that you’ll find when walking in from the street. The courtyards are often community courtyards and you’ll have the neighbouring kids from the various buildings adjoining the courtyard playing there. Adults tend to get together and talk and smoke (lots of smoking in Georgia. Lots).

Our Airbnb. Speaking of apartments and courtyards, we stayed in a beautiful Airbnb while in Tblisi which had an inner courtyard. Very, very nice people.

Above: Sulphur Baths in Tblisi

Sulphur Baths. The Old Town has numerous places where you can experience a Sulphur bath and a massage. All are unisex. The “best baths” according to our guide are the Orbeliani Baths. See this post by the Jetsetting Fools which covers a sulphur bath experience (not Orbeliani Baths) and what you can expect.

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