After five weeks apart, Chris and I reunited in Czech Republic to continue our year abroad. We picked Prague for our city to meet in due to its easy train and plane connections.
We spent a fun three days exploring the city and eating Czech cuisine and drinking beer. We found Prague to be hugely crowded and with good reason: beautiful gothic and baroque architecture, a rich and textured history, and a vibrant old town city center. From reading a few articles, and going on a walking tour, we enjoyed learning some of the weird and funny stories of Prague through the ages, such as why there is a human arm hanging in one of the churches, and the popularity of “defenestration” in Prague’s history.
After having visited both Vienna and Prague back to back, I was ready to get out of town to a smaller place and enjoy some peace and quiet and nature. We took a train to the town of Kromêrîž, population 20,000, site of an archbishop’s palace and huge French garden, along the Moravia River. One of the nights we were there we went to an open-air acoustic guitar concert on the town square, which was perfect. We walked in the gardens and admired the peacocks during the day. A brewery next to our hotel featured their own delightful beer as well as sausages, cheese, and beer cheesecake. We were glad we chose to visit the town.
We took the train to Bratislava and stayed in an apartment just outside of the main walking area- and I have to say, it is my favorite place we’ve stayed in a while. It felt like being at home, with a terrace outside and a large living room. Best of all, it was next door to the Slovak Pub, which served the best of Slovakia’s national dishes: cabbage soup with sausage and cream, and bryndzovè halušky, which is a gnocchi-like dumpling with sheep’s cheese and crispy bacon.
In Bratislava, we took a Communism tour and an Old Town walking tour. We also hiked up to the radio/tv tour outside of town for a great view- the highest point in Bratislava!
With a record heat-wave in Central Europe, we left Bratislava and headed into the mountainous central part of the country. We arrived in Bojnice, site of a beautiful old castle and the country’s oldest zoo. With a quiet town promenade, plenty of cafes and taverns, an escape room, and a thermal spa, I think this town is on the rise for vacationers (Lonely Planet named the Tatras mountains in Slovakia the number one tourist destination for 2019, so be ready to see a lot more of Slovakia in articles and blogs!).
And now, we head to Hungary and Romania! Any travel advice for us?
Geographically in Asia, politically in Europe, Georgia is the perfect base for exploring the Caucasus. We visited Georgia before, between, and after visiting Azerbaijan and Armenia (Americans can enter Georgia without a visa for up to one year). Each time we visited, we explored a different part. We both really liked Georgia and hope to visit again one day. It’s beautiful, it has a rich history, and it has nice weather. And they are the oldest makers of wine in the world. What’s not to like?
Old Town Tbilisi
As usual, we hit the ground running with an Old City walking tour. It helps us get oriented, and the guides usually suggest some good spots for drinks and dinner. We visited old churches, a rare mosque that welcomes both Sunni and Shiite worshippers, and a fortress up on a hill. We saw the Mother Georgia, the ancient sulfur baths, and the ultra-modern Peace Bridge.
Afterwards, we had khinkali, khachapuri, and traditionally-made red wine with our new friend Miranda, and wound up pretty much drinking the night away at a jazz cafe called Singer, where the shelving was made from the parts of an old Singer sewing machine table.
On another night, we were able to catch up with our friend Maia, who we last saw in Myanmar on our visit there, and previously in Khartoum. It’s fun catching up with old friends in new cities!
Tbilisi: Opera House area
On our next visit in town (after going to Azerbaijan), we visited the Opera House area, where we rented a small apartment from a woman who only spoke Russian and Armenian. It was small but cozy, and we were able to do our laundry there. It was near both the Opera House, and the History Museum, which had several good exhibits, including one on Soviet oppression. We also took the funicular up to Turtle Lake over in Vake Park, overlooking the Memorial to the Great Patriotic War. We did a walking tour on the north side of old Tbilisi, which focused more on old Soviet art and architecture. The walking tour meets at Fabrika Hostel, which is a really cool old Soviet sewing factory building that’s been turned into a hostel, featuring an amazing breakfast spread (open to visitors for 19 lari/$7).
Signaghi and Khakheti Wine Region
Along with Miranda, we took a day tour out to the wine-making region of Kakheti. Unfortunately most of the wine tasting of the day went to waste due to our debauchery of the night before- we could barely look at the stuff. Still, it was interesting to learn about how they make the wine, which is fermented in huge clay pots, with the seeds and skins still on the grapes.
We stopped for a visit at a church and nunnery at Signaghi, an old city. The town is lovely, with the picturesque wall of mountains in the distance separating this region of Georgia from Dagestan in Russia. The old church, Bodbe Monastery, is dedicated to St Nino, a young woman who brought Christianity into Georgia in the early 4th century. She made a cross out of two bent grape vines, tied together with her hair, which is why the Georgian cross is usually shown with bent arms. The church here houses a reliquary of St Nino and is a popular pilgrimage spot for Georgians and visitors from around the world.
Mtskheta and Gori
Chris and I took another day trip to visit several sites northwest of Tbilisi. We stopped at the Church of the Holy Cross, perched atop a high plateau overlooking the confluence of two rivers, where the nation of Georgia was baptized in 337. Inside the nearby city of Mtskheta, we walked through the Old Town to the Cathedral of Svetitskhoveli (Church of the Living Pillar), a World Heritage Site and the burial place of Christ’s mantle. The current building has been in place since 1029, but sadly lost many of its priceless antiques, such as Middle Ages frescoes that were white-washed by Russian Imperialists.
We also visited the caves at Uplistsikhe, where people lived all the way from the Bronze Age up to the late Middle Ages. It was an important capital city of the Kartli empire, long before the Georgian state. Worshippers from the Iberian peninsula came here to worship their pagan gods, and thrived until the Mongol invasion of the 13th century. A bakery, prison, apothecary, living quarters, and a church are still visible there today, carved out from the rocky caves.
From there, our day tour went to Gori, the birthplace of Stalin. We visited a museum about the man, which also featured the bulletproof train car he rode in to go to the Yalta conference and to Potsdam. It was an interesting visit, which prompted a discussion about how much a nation should memorialize a public figure who figured so prominently into history but also caused so many deaths.
The many faces of Stalin
Tbilisi: Cathedral area
After taking a minibus down to Armenia for a visit, we returned to Tbilisi to get ready for our flights out. We rented an apartment in the Trinity Catherdral area of town, which is across the river from Old Town and near the Avlabari metro station (where you can catch the bus to Armenia). Our two bedroom, two-story apartment was just $31 a night and literally across the street from the beautiful cathedral, which is the largest one in the Caucasus. We really enjoyed being able to spread out a bit, work on my blog, work on taxes, and kind of take a rest from traveling for a few days. The views of the Cathedral were amazing.
So now we’re rested, researched, and ready for the next leg of our adventure: two weeks’ tour in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Follow along with us as we head down the Silk Road!