Getting To Meteora


I’m supposed to have a driver, Nikos, pick me up at 10.30 a.m. in Thessaloniki, but at 9.30 a.m. I’m told that his car has broken down and he' going to be late. I finally set off at noon with a new driver, Kostas and his hastily pressganged ( I gather) assistant Zoe. She is a young music student at Thessaloniki, who lives in the village of Kalabaka at Meteora, where I am headed. Kostas and Nikos live there too. Apparently, everyone knows everyone else in Kalabaka. Zoe chatters away to me. Kostas leans more towards the taciturn, but that doesn’t stop him complaining at the bursts of conversation. ‘I don’t speak English…’ he sulks. This is not the way to earn a tip, I think.

Platamon Castle

We’re taking the scenic route as compensation for the delay. Alongside us is huge and lofty Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece at 2918 metres above the sea. It's home of the gods, but they are disappointingly not in evidence today, as it’s swathed in cloud. And a stop, to the south east at a medieval fortress. Platamon, is a Crusader castle in a strategic coastal position which controls the exit of the Tempe Valley, connecting Macedonia with Thessaly and southern Greece. It has one lone tower, sadly not accessible as part of the three euro ticket, and fabulous views across the wide bays and beaches below.

Meteora

My next viewpoints are from Kalabaki itself. Meteora is spread before me, one of those stunning places that should be on any bucket list. It is already included on the UNESCO World Heritage List - more on that later. It is a series of rock formations (unromantically composed of sandstone conglomerate originally from the seabed) hosting precipitously built complexes of Eastern Orthodox monasteries, second in importance only to Mount Athos. The six (from an original 24) monasteries are perched on immense natural pillars and huge rounded boulders that dominate the skyline. The area is named Meteora for obvious reasons. And it’s astonishing.

The History of Meteora

Amazingly, radiocarbon dating evidences human presence 50,000 years ago, in caves in the area. The first people documented to inhabit Meteora, after the Neolithic Era, were an ascetic group of hermit monks in the ninth century AD. Seeking tranquillity, they moved up to the ancient pinnacles and lived in hollows and fissures in the rock towers, some as high as 550 metres above the plain. This great height, combined with the sheerness of the cliff walls, kept away all but the most determined visitors.

I can’t help but feel sorry for them; as is so often the case their solitude was intruded upon by official organisation of the monks into monasteries. Numbers grew still further when additional monks sought shelter from the Turkish invasion and subsequent religious oppression. They still managed to maintain their isolation by restricting access using a system of nets, baskets, ropes and ladders to access the pinnacles and transport goods. The ladders were drawn up when danger threatened. The ropes were replaced, so the story goes, only "When the Lord let them break”.

The Downside of UNESCO Recognition

But eventually, even the monks' heroic determination failed to keep out the rest of the world. Steps were carved into the rock during the 1920s. And some monasteries were rendered uninhabitable because of Italian bombing during World War II, when they were again being used as a refuge. Treasures were damaged or purloined. Rescue came in the form of UNESCO recognition, which led to a huge influx of money for restoration and repair. It also led to a huge influx of tourists. Today, there is a road up to the main entrances of the largest. Ironically, most of the monks have left. Of the 24 monasteries, only six - four for men, two for women, (who were allowed in, during the 1960s) - are still functioning, with each housing fewer than ten individuals. The remainder are now uninhabited ruins.

An Expedition to The Top at Meteora

I’m not visiting by road though, I’m virtuously hiking, taking the old monks’ trails. My guide is called Heracles. He has a shaven head, twinkly blue eyes and muscles that go well with his name. This bodes ominously for the severity of my ‘gentle hike’ into the mountains. He says not to worry, it’s not a very arduous walk and then bounds off in a straight line up the steep, gravel covered slope of the Doupiani Peak in front of us. I follow after, trying simultaneously not to topple over and to keep breathing.

Thankfully, the path gradient lessens when we reach the upper peaks. And it really is worth the clamber, for the incredible panoramas and the tranquillity of the woodlands. Heracles says that north Thessaly is known as the land of oaks. The leaves are much larger than English oaks – I think they might be Turkey oaks. But I’m not going to suggest that in Greece. We’re also assaulted by small nipping flies. Heracles says they’re a legacy of the recent heavy rains - a medicane (Mediterranean hurricane) zipped though here last week.

Thymios Vlachavas, Freedom Fighter

We rest atop one peak to admire the unravelling panorama alongside a cross, and a circular helicopter landing type area with a statue of a heroic monk Thymios Vlachavas, a Greek klepht or resistance fighter against the Turks. He’s wielding a gun and sword, as he was intent on organising some large scale resistance. But it didn’t get beyond the planning stage. He was betrayed, captured by Ali Pasha, executed and quartered.

The Monasteries of Meteora

Our destination is the Great Meteoron Monastery on the Broad Rock. It is the oldest and largest monastery, founded by Athanasios Koinovitis from Mount Athos in 1356. It also receives the most visitors, which is probably why only three monks currently reside there. The Katholikon (main church), dedicated to the Transfiguration of Jesus was erected in the middle of the fourteenth century and sublimely a hundred years (or so) later. (No pictures allowed).

Across the ravine - Great Meteron probably has the best views of all, from its balcony - is perhaps the most photographed monastery, Varlaam. It is reputed to house the finger of St. John and the shoulder blade of St. Andrew. Varlaam is appropriately and scenically positioned on a finger of rock. Heracles says that if it weren’t for Covid the buildings would be swarming and there would be ten coaches lined up in the car park opposite, alongside the souvenir stalls.

Kastraki

Kastraki village is huddled under the huge peaks. One looms over the church like King Kong waiting to pounce. There's a monastery directly above. This one is closed but, according to tradition, the local people donate clothes once year. These are festooned, colourful pennant strings, across the balustrades. There is a tiny taverna lined square in front of the church, atmospheric al fresco dining in the lee of the giant rocks. The succulent souvlakli at the Bakaliarakia are excellent.

My Hotel at Meteora

The Doupiani House Hotel is nestled below the first hill I climb - the Doupiani Peak - and boasts that it has the best panoramic view in the village of Kastraki. That’s probably true. It would be hard to better the vista from my balcony. There are little tables and chairs scattered beguilingly under the olive trees. There’s welcoming fruit, local wine and some kind of gorgeously gelatinous sweet stuff in a dish – Grecian Delight? Breakfast is typical Greek fare - plenty of yogurt, honey, fruit, rice pudding and flaky apple cake served by beaming waitresses. The rooms are traditionally styled and provide all I need, though the pillows are a little unforgiving. Sadly though the walls are less traditional and I can hear the conversations and TVs streaming seamlessly from both sides of me.

Next stop Delphi.

Getting To Mount Athos - Ouranopoli

Mount Athos is almost a casualty of coronavirus, despite the fact that it was the main reason I came to Thessaloniki. The coach journey I booked has been cancelled and no operators are now offering the trip. But the hotel staff have galloped to the rescue and found me a taxi who will drive me 140 kilometres to Ouranopoli (at a price), from where the boat departs. The journey to the little port is very pretty, especially in the verdant vicinity of Halkidiki itself, replete with misty grey olive groves. The taxi driver says I don’t have to put on my seat belt - he has a fake plastic clip he inserts into the clasp to prevent the warning beep. 'Only made in Greece', he exclaims proudly. Well he said it…

The Holy Mountain

Mount Athos, on the third, most easterly finger of the Halkidiki Peninsula, is 'an autonomously governed region of the Hellenic Republic, the most important centre of Eastern Orthodox monasticism in the country.' Commonly referred to as The Holy Mountain, it is home to twenty monasteries under the direct jurisdiction of the 'Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople'. The monastic traditions here date back a long time, to at least AD 800 and the Byzantine era. Today, over 2,000 monks from Greece and many other countries live the ascetic life in Athos, isolated from the rest of the world. The Athonite monasteries are also known for their rich collections of well-preserved artefacts, rare books, ancient documents, and artworks of immense historical value - Mount Athos has been listed as a World Heritage site since 1988.

The special jurisdiction of the Monastic State, gives its leaders the authority to regulate the free movement of people and goods in its territory; in particular, only males are permitted to enter; no women have been allowed in for over a thousand years. So the only way I’m going to get close is by boat.

Boat Trip Round Mount Athos

I’m fully expecting the boat trip to be cancelled, but it isn’t and the ship is as full as current regulations allow. No Seating areas are marked to space out passengers. Naturally, these signs are mostly ignored. The monasteries are currently home to 2300 monks escaping 'normal life'. Most of the buildings have idyllic locations, amidst the craggy gorges and green scrub of the peninsula. either by the waterside or perched high above the sea, so the occupants can be closer to God. Some are reminiscent of the Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan. Here the Buddhist stupas are replaced by red domes or spires – green in the case of the monastery that houses Russian monks. While Simonopetra Monastery, soaring above the water, is reminiscent of the Potala in Tibet,.

Their decision to permanently self isolate does not prevent the monks from making the most of economic opportunities. Four of them, in full black priestly garb, descend on our vessel from a speedboat complete with baskets of ‘relics’ and other bric a brac for sale.

Back to Thessaloniki and then more monasteries at Meteora.

Getting into Armenia

We head diagonally across the Black Sea from Kiev (it looks pretty blue today) and across the Caucasus Mountains to Armenia. It’s really windy up in the sky and our plane is bouncing over the snow-capped peaks. Naturally, we are diverted by air traffic control and spend a further twenty minutes jolting around in circles before we finally land. I’m not sure why. There are only four planes at the airport. It turns out that all the men in leather jackets reeking of tobacco and being very loud were Armenian. When we arrive at Passport Control they try every trick in their armoury to get ahead in the queue. Most of them just sidle alongside or even walk rapidly up the edge. No-one challenges them, until one man actually clambers under the ropes alongside the designated  queuing path. The attendant sends him back firmly. He just grins.

The Train That Isn't

This is my second trip to Armenia. Read about the first one here. I’m supposed to be picking up the Golden Eagle train to travel through the Caucasus this time, but apparently the Azeris have scuppered this plan. Relations between Armenia and neighbouring Azerbaijan have been fraught for years and the two countries are technically still at war. The issue centres around Nagorno-Karabakh, an area of south-western Azerbaijan populated largely by ethnic Armenians. And the Azeris have suddenly decreed that our train may not enter Azerbaijan if it has been to Armenia. So the train is waiting on the Georgian border and we have to do our sightseeing here and then travel by bus on Thursday to meet it. I assume the same rule doesn’t apply to people.

Geghard and Garni, Armenia

This is a ‘luxury’ tour and we’ve all been issued with audio devices, so we can amble around while the poor guide is speaking and wondering if he is just talking to himself. We head out of town, a return visit for me to the Geghard Monastery and the Garni Temple.  Both are more notable, as far as I am concerned, for their settings, than their architectural interest.

They are both spectacularly set in different rocky gorges. It’s still glorious weather, an Indian Summer is forecast for the Caucasus and Central Asia and there is golden autumn colour in abundance. Mount Ararat, draped in snow, sits to the right for the whole of our drive. It is the principal national symbol of Armenia however, after numerous border changes, it is now actually located within Turkey. There’s a widely-held belief in Armenia that Noah’s Ark is embedded in ice atop Mount Ararat. Despite many expeditions, said ark has never been found, (our guide says that photographs have even been taken from space to assist the search), but that doesn’t stop it appearing on Armenia’s coat of arms.

Our visit has a suitably touristy finale with Armenian dance and music.

Yerevan, Armenia

Yerevan, the capital nestles in the valley below. It hasn’t changed much in the last eight years. It’s still not hugely interesting, there isn’t much left that’s old and Armenia is still the poor relation in the Caucasus. There are a few more Armagnac factories on the drive from the airport. The crane is still in place at the top of the huge Cascades stairway. The traffic is still awful. And the genocide museum is still incredibly moving. We lay white flowers around the eternal flame that burns above the city.

In the evening, dinner with Jennifer who lives in Boston. She is really good fun and I met her on my tour to the Balkans two years ago. By some serendipitous occurrence our paths have crossed for one night in Yerevan. We only discovered this via Facebook. Amazing! Really good to catch up.

Black Van, Armenia

Now I’m retracing my steps past Mount Ararat and along gleaming Lake Sevan (Black Van to distinguish it from the Van in Turkey). The two little monastery churches on the peninsular are still scenic and it’s still hard work, climbing the 200 odd steps to reach them at an altitude of 1900 metres.

Haghhartsin

There’s a stop at a village called Dilijan, which is billed as a reconstructed street. It’s more of a little tourist trap with shops jammed with souvenirs and a ‘masterclass’ from a ceramicist, in the hope of inducing us to buy his pots. The foliage here is just beginning to turn and there are dappled patterns all along the hills, below the snow painted peaks. Then a monastery new to me. Haghhartsin, with its twin spires and several churches stands in another gorge, stunning with the autumn foliage. It has been restored, with money donated by the Emir of Sharjah. This is somewhat surprising, as he is a Muslim. But he is said to have found the site to be exceedingly beautiful - he also visited in the autumn.

The bus wends its way along the Azeri border- a hotbed of tension even away from Nagorno-Karabakh. The hills are green and smooth, here rolling away in huge velvety folds. There are some abandoned (and roofless) houses. We have already suffered the inconvenience of having our train hijacked. Our local guide, who has much to say about the injustices perpetuated by both the Turks and the Azeris has numerous stories of people who have been denied entry to Azerbaijan because they have Armenian connections. The most bizarre involves an American woman whose first husband was Armenian. She has since remarried, but is still not allowed in. I’m seriously beginning to wonder if we will be permitted entry having spent three days in Armenia. But first Georgia.

Ukraine

Ukraine is the poorest country in Europe alongside Moldova, suffering from a very high poverty rate and severe corruption. It's the second largest country in Europe (if you count Russia) and therefore has extensive fertile farmlands; Ukraine is one of the largest grain exporters in the world. It also maintains the third-largest military in Europe after Russia and France - it has to, because of ongoing conflicts with Russia since the pro Russian alliance fell apart in 2014 and Russia annexed Crimea. Ukraine has a long history. The territory of modern Ukraine has been inhabited since 32,000 BC. I'm on a lengthy trip, so I'm only visiting the capital, Kiev.

Kiev, the Capital of Ukraine - Friendly and Efficient

The journey from Minsk is amazingly quick. The plane takes off exactly on 1.30 and I’m in my hotel room in Kiev at 3pm. Astonishing efficiency at Kiev airport where they even manage to bid me ‘Welcome to Ukraine’ in immigration. I’m so early the taxi driver is still scurrying through the door trying to find his Susan Rogers sign. At first glance Kiev looks much more like the down at heel fraying at the edges city I expected from Minsk. But it’s raining and better weather is promised. Let’s see what the sun brings.

The staff on the hotel reception are very friendly and the concierge Ivan quickly sorts me out a private guide for tomorrow. Some of the sights are fairly spread out and a car will be helpful. As he reminds me, I’m only here once. It’s a good if unoriginal line to justify 45 dollars an hour; Ivan’s already famous on trip advisor for his helpfulness. (I’ve decided to pass on visiting Chernobyl. Kiev is quite close enough.) The bell boy has a blue military style jacket and he zooms off, not even expecting a tip. All is well.

Khreshchatyk Street

At first it feels as if I’ve landed in the back of beyond location wise, but once I’ve worked out which way to go (up the hill) I’m soon in the humming part of town and wandering along Kiev’s main thoroughfare, Khreshchatyk Street, apparently referred to as the shortest yet widest main drag in the world. It is remarkably broad, but not as wide as the streets in Minsk, so I’m unimpressed. It’s closed for traffic today, there are police cars parked at each end so I can saunter up the middle and admire the brown mock renaissance buildings towering on each side. (As well as Soviet towers and a GUM department store. there are several street exhibitions, one on the history of Kiev. (the anniversary of the Russian revolution is approaching) and one that has a religious theme.

The Golden Globes of Kiev

Kiev is growing on me. It’s much more European than Minsk; I only see a few statues and very little brutalism (the odd Soviet style statue) with cobbled streets (well brick), tree lined squares and familiar chain stores. There’s an excess of neoclassical pillars too, as well as a multiplicity of gold domed churches and cathedrals, including the eleventh century World Heritage Saint-Sophia Cathedral. It’s an upmarket café culture but there are also more fancified McDonalds. The McDonald’s next to the main train station is claimed to be the third busiest in the world.

My hotel room is nicely furnished, not huge but big enough, and seems to have everything I require. Molton Brown toiletries. You can eat from the same menu in the main restaurant or the bar (which is very smoky) or the hotel vestibule (very opulent with piano). The menu itself is fun. Potatoes are listed under the heading ‘starches’. The waiter helps me choose local food – bortsch (which turns out to be from Ukraine not Russia) and shuba salad (herring and potato). It’s really good, with lashings more cream. There’s no Chicken Kiev though. They tell me that doesn’t come from Kiev. It is thought to be a nineteenth-century French recipe, brought to the east by Russian aristocracy fascinated by French cuisine.

Kiev, The Cradle of Russian Civilisation

Today, I’m off on a tour of Kiev, with my guide and driver. Both of them are called Alex, so that’s easy to manage. My guide speaks good English, is interesting and doesn’t go on too much, though he is passionate about his city. I’m given to understand in no uncertain terms that Kiev is the cradle of Russian civilisation. It was blessed by Andrew, the apostle, according to legend and, from the the late ninth to the mid-thirteenths century, was the capital of Kyivan Rus. Kiev was said to rival, Athens or Rome, with its own acropolis and was ruled over by the Rurik dynasty, The modern nations of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine all claim 'Kievan Rus' as their cultural ancestors, with Belarus and Russia deriving their names from it.

I’ve also learned that Vitali Klitschko, the boxer is the current mayor of Kiev. Alex says he only makes very short speeches. That sounds like an advantage to me. He and his brother donated the very bright gilded angel on the top of St Michael’s monastery. The weather today is perversely and wonderfully, gloriously sunny (if brisk). All the golden domes are showcased to their very best advantage against a clear blue sky, with the faintest suggestion of puffy clouds.

Golden Gate

First stop is the Golden Gate in a central square. This 'restored' edifice (it's not golden like the globes) was the main gate in the eleventh century fortifications of the capital of Kyivan Rus. It was named after the Golden Gate of Constantinople. The structure was entirely demolished in the Middle Ages and was rebuilt completely by the Soviets authorities in 1982. There were no pictures of the original so no-one has a clue if this building is a an accurate reconstruction. It's surrounded by plenty of statues.

River Dnieper

But visiting Kiev is essentially a tour of churches and monasteries (both Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox - there was yet another schism). Like Rome, Kiev is built on seven hills (give or take a few) with catacombs below. Some of these were utilised by monks and hermits and later developed into monasteries.

The other main tourist attraction is the river walk alongside the River Dnieper, with great views across the water and the city. There are several monuments to the Second World War in the Park of Eternal Glory. It's a relaxing saunter.

Pechersk Lavra Monastery

The 11th-century Kiev Pechersk Lavra (Senior Monastery with caves) and pilgrimage site has more gold domes and candle lit subterranean passages, lined with the tombs of naturally mummified Orthodox monks and saints. You can even see some bones, peeking out of the elaborately embroidered coverings. If you’re a woman you have to wear a cloth tied over your jeans and scarf on your head to see them. If you’re a man the Russian Orthodox god doesn’t mind. He doesn’t get upset about miniskirts either, just women in jeans.

There’s also a charming bohemian area, up one hill lined with art galleries and little market booths and surmounted by one gilded domed church. Unsurprisingly, it known as the Montmartre of Kiev. This city definitely rewards wandering.

Botanical Garden, Kiev

Alex has told me that I should spend the rest of the afternoon in one of the monastery museums, but I’ve had my fill of churches, so I'm going to be disobedient. The botanical garden is just down the road and I’m off in search off autumn colour. (Though there is the very pretty St Volodymyr's Cathedral to be admired on the way).

The garden area is verging on scruffy, relieved by a little faded orange foliage and the park is chock-full of locals enjoying the sun and posing for photographs. I check to make sure I haven’t been teleported to Japan.

Bessarabian Market, Kiev

The Bessarabian market is my last call, in search of a different type of colour. It’s mostly magnificent heaps of fruit and vegetables. The stall holders are happy for me to take pictures, but not happy to be in them. I can see elements of Asia intermingling with Europe here and outside. Many of the people thronging the streets have dark hair and brown eyes and there are huge underground shopping malls, warrens of trinkets and spices. It’s reminiscent of Tashkent.

Borispol Airport, Kiev, Ukraine

I should have known better than to write nice things about air travel in Ukraine. I’ve been misled, by the superb hotel staff, into thinking all Ukrainians are super friendly. My flight to Yerevan goes out of a different Kiev airport, Borispol, some way out of the city. The city traffic is bad and the ground staff begrudging with their barked commands to self-check in. There are only four booths, the queue at the bag drop-off is long and the mechanical check in process duly replicated by the clerk. The airport is dark and the few seats already taken by men in leather jackets who smell of Turkish tobacco and play videos loudly on their phones. I'm on my way to Armenia.

Getting into Bhutan

Bhutan is not easy to get into, both physically and bureaucratically. You have to join an organised tour with a recognised tour company and you are required to spend a relatively large number of U.S. dollars each day. This once very secretive and closed kingdom has determined to keep tourism high-end (and therefore lucrative) and reduce its impact on the country.

This is very much a country of mountains and valleys and consequently there is only one accessible international airport, at Paro. Only pilots who are especially trained are allowed to fly in. This has the effect of limiting access to two Bhutanese airlines – Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines – who fly to very few neighbouring countries and Buddha Air, a Nepalese charter airline. In addition, Boeing have designated this possibly the most challenging landing in the world. Accounts on the internet describe the approach: terrifying, with violent turbulence, as the planes’ wings appear to brush the towering valley slopes. You can imagine that I am approaching the journey from Nepal with mixed feelings. In the event it is thrilling rather than frightening, with great views of Everest. At dinner in Thimpu (the capital) these stories are confirmed by two pilots, in charge of a private jet (bringing an American business whizz whose name I recognise), who have stopped to pick up a trained Bhutanese pilot before they are allowed in.

Modern Day Bhutan

Is it worth it? It’s picturesque, but probably not as beautiful or diverse as Nepal (though the air is a lot cleaner.)

It’s more modern that you might expect, for a country that was sealed off from the world until relatively recently. There is internet in most places and there is a steady stream of imports (much of it food) coming overland in huge painted trucks from India).

Bhutan is not as humanitarian as one might expect either. There are workers from other countries, such as India, who seem to have a rough time.

It doesn’t have much to offer other than monasteries and mountains. However, it is fascinating and the atmosphere in the monasteries, the chanting and rhythmic percussion draws you in and calms the soul. It’s difficult to tear oneself away.

The most visited monasteries (Dzongs) and their locations are stunning. Switzerland meets the medieval Orient.

Punakha Dzong

The Punakha Dzong is picturesquely situated between two rivers, one male, one female. there's an ancient wooden cantilevered bridge beautifully decorated. It is the second oldest and second-largest dzong in Bhutan and was the centre of government until the capital was moved to Thimpu in 1955. It's also the present winter home of Dratshang – the head monk

Rinpung Dzong

Rinpung Monastery (fortress on heaped jewels) is the administrative headquarters of Paro and stands proudly on a hill slope. In addition to the towering walls, this one has splendid wall paintings, and 14 shrines and chapels.

National Museum of Bhutan

Just up the slope from Rinpung Dzong is the National Museum of Bhutan, housed in a circular building that was once the watchtower for the monastery.

Gangteng Dzong

Gangteng Monastery is another must see on the tourist trail in Bhutan; it boasts colourful temples, a famous 11 faced Avalokitesvara Lhakhang Buddhist statue, Shedra’s Assembly Hall, and a (too large for my liking) collection of weapons and armoury.

Tiger's Nest

The renowned Paro Taktsang Dzong (try saying that fast) is built into the cliffside above the Paro Valley, around 10,000 feet above sea level. The sacred site is a relic of historical Tibet; the complex was built up around one of the 13 caves where Guru Padmasambhava meditated. They are all known as Tiger's Nests and this one is truly breath-taking – in both senses of the word. The gold plated pagoda like towers, colourful flags, golden prayer wheels, and cave temple totally rewards the effort it takes to get there. The trek up is a real struggle as the altitude takes its toll. I climb for four hours, with several stops to rest my lungs. The return journey is a different matter. My guide is astonished when I run down the track in much less than an hour. So am I.

Thimpu and The Royal Palace

The capital of Bhutan is Thimpu, at roughly 2,500 metres above sea level. It's best seen from above where you get great views of the Royal Palaces and the National Assembly. The other main tourist stop is the National Memorial Chorten. With another spectacular view this white stupa is surrounded by golden spires, bells, assembly halls, paintings, and a venerated photograph of the King, Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King) in ceremonial attire.

Life in Bhutan

Whilst there is ongoing innovation there is much about the way of life that is unchanged. The Bhutanese wear traditional dress and the villages contain shuttered wooden shops, the streets lined with markets stalls. Many of the houses and monasteries are beautifully decorated, - a phallus often features. Some big, some small, some terrifyingly huge, in various colour schemes, some of them having ribbons tied around them and some also having eyes. All of the phalluses are fully erect as this is what frightens off the evil spirits, apparently.

Darts and archery are the national sports and competitions are taking place on the sides of the road as we motor through. The archers wear brightly coloured skirts with a series of swinging tails.

The Downsides of Bhutan

  • When you're here it's all very controlled. There are checkpoints everywhere.
  • There are an awful lot of handicraft shops.
  • The food is a little strange. Breakfast is cornflakes, rice porridge, tomato sauce, guavas, chips and baked beans. Chilli and cheese are served with most meals.
  • I have a mini bus, a driver, and a guide to myself. They are informative, hardworking and sober. Until the last night when I make the mistake of offering my driver a farewell drink at my hotel. He is not (I assume) able to tolerate alcohol well and he follows me back to my bungalow with lustful intentions. I have to physically restrain him. He doesn’t arrive, with the driver, to return me to the airport for Nepal in the morning.

A five night extended weekend trip. It was the last time the company ran this tour - there was no demand for Armenia they said. A shame. It's a pretty and tranquil country.  The mountains are beautiful and you can always use them as a fallback  when the monasteries begin to pall. There are a lot of monasteries. The weather was gorgeous and the buildings perfectly framed. We saw:

Yerevan

Yerevan, the capital. It is one of the world’s oldest inhabited cities, constructed 29 years before Rome. No prizes for guessing why they call it the "Pink City". Many of the buildings are constructed of rosy hued tufa stone.. Highlights are: the genocide museum, Liberty and Republic Squares and the Cascades open air staircase area, (still being constructed with two cranes at the top).

Etchmiadzin Cathedral

There's also the fourth century Etchmiadzin Cathedral, headquarters of the Armenian Church. The music was sublime and the Patriarch himself was there celebrating mass. He had a very kind face.

Garni

The Graeco-Roman Temple of Garni (The latter is the only pagan temple in Armenia probably built by king Tiridates I in the first century AD as a temple to the sun god Mihr.)

Khor Virap Monastery

Khor Virap Monastery is a pilgrimage site on the Ararat plain in Armenia, near the closed border with Turkey, The monastery was host to a theological seminary and was the residence of the Armenian Catholicos. Khor Virap's notability is attributed to the imprisonment here of Gregory the Illuminator by King Tiridates III of Armenia. Saint Gregory subsequently became the king's religious mentor, and they led the proselytizing activity in the country. Armenia was the first country in the world to be declared a Christian nation in AD 301. The first chapel was built here in 642. Mount Ararat looms in the distance.

Geghard Monastery

Medieval Geghard Monastery is n the Kotayk province of Armenia; it's partially carved out of the adjacent mountain, surrounded by cliffs and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Lake Sevan

Serene Lake Sevan (Black Van) and its monasteries. Noratus Cemetery near here has the biggest open air collection of ancient Armenian Khachqars (cross stones)and tombstones

Noravank Monastery

We climbed down a steep path to some basalt pillars by the lake and went on to Noravank, an impossibly picturesque 13th-century Armenian monastery in a narrow gorge made by the Amaghu River, near the town of Yeghegnadzor

Tatov Monastery

Tatov Monastery, the most scenically placed of them all. Like Machu Picchu the view is best from above

  • And a few other monasteries whose names I can't remember
  • We ate roundels of lavash bread and heaps of herby salad leaves
  • There were lots of storks, their nests on the top of posts - they're the national bird and they're sacred

You can read about my second trip to Armenia on the Golden Eagle Luxury train here.

Newsletter Subscription

Stay in touch. Get travel tips, updates on my latest adventures and posts on out of the way places, straight to your Inbox.

I keep your data private and only share your data with third parties that make this service possible. Privacy Policy. No spam I promise. Unsubscribe any time.