Armenia - A Very Brief History

  • Armenia has an ancient cultural heritage. This is one of the oldest countries in the world. The first Armenian states dates back to 860 BC(Urartu), and the sixth century BC (the Satrapy of Armenia). The Kingdom of Armenia reached its height under Tigranes the Great, in the first century BC. In the year 301 Armenia became the first state in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion. It lays claim to the oldest cathedral in the world. Over time, the ancient Armenian kingdom was split into western and eastern sections divided by different empires. this culminated in the rule of the Ottoman and Persian empires, with both parts repeatedly ruled by either of the two over the centuries.
  • By the nineteenth century, Eastern Armenia had been conquered by the Russian Empire, while most of the western parts of the traditional Armenian homeland remained under Ottoman rule. According to Wikipedia, 'During World War I, 1.5 million Armenians, living in their ancestral lands in the Ottoman Empire were systematically exterminated - the Armenian genocide.
  • Eastern Armenia became the First Republic of Armenia after the Russian revolution, but was then subsumed into the Soviet Union. The modern Republic of Armenia became independent in 1991 during the dissolution of the U.S.S.R.

Facts and Factoids

  • The total number of Armenians in the world is 10-12 million, whereas the population of Armenia is around 3 million. Many Armenians fled their homeland after the genocide in 1915.
  • Armenia is the home of the apricot
  • The village of Areni is home to the world's oldest winery. It has produced wine for over six thousand years.
  • Armenian cognac is also famous.
  • Armenian Lavash bread is on the UN culture list.
  • There were lots of storks, their nests on the top of telegraph posts - they're the national bird and they're sacred.
  • Armenia is is known as The Land of Stones, as there are a lot of mountains and a lot of stones...

What to See in Armenia?

A scenic overload of mountains and monasteries, accompanied by herby salads and lavash bread. here are my two trip:

A Brief History of Bulgaria

  • The majority of Bulgaria was incorporated into ancient Thrace, but the area fell first to the Persians and then to the Romans, followed by the Byzantines. The Byzantine dominion was invaded, first by peaceful hardworking Slavs and then belligerent proto Bulgarians, who beat the Byzantines in battle (as the emperor went off to bathe in the springs to treat his gout and the soldiers thought, unsurprisingly, that he had run away).
  • In 681, the first official Bulgarian state was created. This period is sometimes called the Golden Age of Bulgaria, because it was a time of wealth, education, art, culture, and literature. The Proto Bulgarians under King Asperuh had signed a peace treaty. However, they studiously ignored it and were eventually reconquered by the Byzantines.
  • Three Bulgarian brothers led another successful revolution in 1185 and moved their capital to Veliko Tarnovo. There were multifarious plots against them, but the youngest, Kaloyen, survived and punished all the traitors. The Ottomans were the next to invade and stayed in control, until the Russian supported Liberation. The Treaty of San Stefano, signed at the end of the Balkan War, gave Bulgaria its independence from the Ottomans, as a separate monarchy.
  • The Bulgarians supported Germany during World War I, resulting in some loss of territory. After World War II, Bulgaria came under Communist rule and was a satellite of the Soviet Union (what is now Russia) until 1989. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Communists allowed the country to elect leaders of their own choosing.
  • Bulgaria today. is governed by a president, prime minister, parliament, and a Council of Ministers.

Facts and Factoids

  • Bulgaria is the only country in Europe whose name has not changed, since the original establishment of the country (in 681 AD).
  • The official language is Bulgarian, and it is the oldest written Slavic language - written in the Cyrillic alphabet.
  • Bulgarian Orthodox is the main religion in Bulgaria, but the country is also home to Roman Catholics, Muslims (about 12% of the population), Protestants, and Jews.
  • In Bulgaria, the people shake their head for “yes” and nod their head for “no”, the opposite of many other cultures
  • Bulgarians claim to have invented yoghurt. Lactobacillus Bulgaricus, the bacterium that is responsible for giving Bulgarian yoghurt its unique flavour and consistency, can be found only in Bulgarian air.
  • The roses grown in Bulgaria’s 'Rose Valley' produce most (70-85%) of the world’s rose oil – a component in many perfumes. This is why Bulgaria is known as 'Land of Roses'.

Is Bulgaria a Safe Country to Visit?

  • Crime levels are low and violent crime is rare. However, you should take care of yourself and your belongings in the same way as you would do in the UK. Take sensible precautions to protect yourself from street crime, particularly in larger cities. Watch out for pickpockets and bag thefts in tourist areas and major public transport hubs, including airports. Be vigilant at all times, particularly late at night.
  • Tourists are targeted by thieves and pickpockets in Sunny Beach and other larger cities and resorts.

Is Bulgaria in the EU?

Bulgaria is a member of the European Union, the Council of Europe, and NATO.

Is Bulgaria a Poor Country?

Bulgaria has become much more stable in the years since communist rule. Its wealth is above average in terms of world rankings but it’s still one of Europe’s poorest countries and the poorest in the EU.

What is There to See and Do in Bulgaria?

  • Bulgaria is a land of contrasts, with its snowy mountains and huge (relatively) capital city Sofia in the west, and its golden sand beaches, Black Sea resorts and historic trading cities in the east. In between are rolling hills, lakes, fields, and truly magical rugged landscapes complete with tiny villages, monasteries and ancient fortresses. Nearly one third of Bulgaria is covered in forests.
  • Bulgaria is worldwide famous for its folklore and opera singers and musicians and it is especially proud of its rich folklore traditions. It’s a blend of Persian, Slavic, Greek, and Ottoman influences. Folk dances, music, national costumes and traditional rituals have an important place in the life of Bulgarians.
  • After Greece and Italy, Bulgaria has the third most valuable archaeological sites in the world, including over 15,000 Thracian tombs.
  • Most tourists head to the Black Sea coastline, though some travellers feel the area is too croded, full of high rise hotels and posisbly a little tacky... Though the ancient city of Nessebar is now a World Heritage site.
  • Outdoor activities and bear watching are available in the mountains. And of course. there are winter sports. in the peaks around Borovets and Bankso.

Read what I did here.

Revisiting Bulgaria

I’m revisiting Bulgaria as I came here once skiing a very long time ago and my photos haven't survived. I was going to travel on my own, but I saw this very cheap trip advertised - Landscapes and Traditions of Bulgaria. So here I am, with nine others. on a circular tour of western Bulgaria.

Sophia, the Capital of Bulgaria

My hotel in Sofia is in the shopping precinct - very handy. The room is about as spartan as it gets - bare cotton sheets and a window you have to stand on a stool to look out of. And just to compound my grievances - others have a kettle. Still, I’m only here for one night. Things can only get better?

Out to explore Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, framed by Vitosha Mountain. It’s a whistle-stop tour, umbrellas at the ready and s there's a torrential downpour. Guide Ani marches ahead at pace, pauses for explanations and then is off again. Photos are taken on the fly.

Ancient Sophia

Most of the sights of Sophia are historical remains, reflecting the city’s history. Sophia has Thracian heritage (associated with the poet Orpheus), but the area was named after the Celtic Serdi tribe, and became Serdica when it was a Roman city. It is replete with Roman remains, some only excavated a year ago. Sophia has been destroyed and rebuilt four times, but the city retains its sixth century Byzantine form. Two key Byzantine buildings remain - St Sophia’s Church on the highest point of city dates from the sixth century. The round Church of St. George is one of oldest churches in the world, dating from when Constantine and his mother Helen adopted Christianity in the 4th century. It was originally part of another imposing public building, perhaps baths or an imperial reception hall. It has five layers of frescoes.

Ottoman Sophia

There are few relics of the Ottoman empire and only one remaining mosque, the Banya Bashi. Most of them were destroyed by the Soviets. The Mosque of the Baths was designed by warriors conscripted from the villages by the Turks and designed to rival the mosques of Sinan. In the Central Square, close to the Banya Bashi Mosque are the thermal springs that give it its name. There’s a yellow and red Ottoman style building that housed the baths and was utilised during Soviet times. It since been restored as a museum.

Post Liberation Sophia

Much is made in Bulgaria of the Russian Liberation from the Ottomans in 1878 and monuments abound. The most famous are the Russian Church and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is extremely grand. The domes are covered in real gold and have recently been redone. There are copious amounts of marble and onyx and the walls are adorned with hosts of icons painted by the foremost artists, mainly on canvas. One especially popular with visitors is deemed to be miraculous. There are three naves, the patriarch's throne and the king’s throne, which is naturally much grander. The frescoes are murky due to candle smoke but there are no funds for restorations of these at the moment.

Alexander Nevsky is a Russian Saint from the 11th century a warrior, chosen to commemorate the travails of King Alexander in removing the Ottomans. A lady in her late 80s climbs 220 steps daily to ring the bells of the cathedral. She's has been performing this ritual for 30 years and is on You-tube.

Although Serdica was an important Roman city Sophia did not become capital of Bulgaria until this period. Opposite the historic covered Central Market Hall (closed) is the synagogue, a 1905 copy of the one that was destroyed in Vienna.

There are plenty of relics of the Soviet occupation. The main draw is the oddly Baroque and newly renovated Central Soviet Square with its Parliament, Presidency, ministries, Sheraton Hotel (only for Soviet dignitaries), underpasses and Louvre like glass domes. The buildings to one side shelter the St George Rotunda.

What else do I remember from my Route March? The National Theatre and a very noisy rock festival in the park behind the central Square - the police have even closed the road.

Christmas Eve in Sophia

Last time I was in the second oldest city in Europe it was Christmas Eve. It was charming. It was snowing and there are small decorated stalls set up around the main square and gilt onion domes of the Aleksander Nevski Cathedral. The locals were buying cards, baubles and Christmas trees, hoisting the latter onto their shoulders to carry home. Pleasingly atmospheric and delightfully uncommercial.

Troyan Monastery

Today we’re off on our clockwise tour of Bulgaria. Our driver is called Angel. East and slightly north, through the oak and beech covered Balkans Mountains. Hayricks, cheese shops and stalls stacked with wooden implements. The vendors sit sour faced on their stools. It’s not encouraging.

First stop is the Troyan monastery, with its chalet style monks cells. It’s home to a miraculous three handed Madonna icon, a copy of an eighth century icon left here by a monk in the 14th century. His horse kept tripping as a signal that he should leave it behind. So the story goes. The additional hand commemorates St John of Damascus who wrote in defence of icons during the Islamic influence, when such representation was discouraged. Emperor Leo was not impressed. He forged documents implicating John in insurrection and the Caliph of Damascus decreed that his hand should be cut off. The deed was done, but John prayed, the hand was healed and in remembrance an additional silver hand was stuck to icons. This eventually became a third 'proper' hand on all copies.

The monastery only dates from the sixteenth century so I’m totally confused as to how the dates for the icon work and I can't find any information that clarifies things. But the building is delightful with its profusion of trailing red flowers over the timber balconies and the minuscule church. This is heavy with incense, replete with suspended candelabras glistening gold and every inch of wall covered in paintings. Visitors line up to touch the icon and at the altar the priest is conducting a baptism.

Veliko Tarnovo, Old Capital of Bulgaria

Veliko Tarnovo was the capital of Bulgaria during its first empire when Asperuh became the first ruler of Bulgaria in 681. There’s a sprawling Tsaravets fortress topped by a Russian church. It’s all been heavily restored by the Soviets. They used mortar in the walls and decorated the inside of the church with dramatically disturbing monochrome murals depicting the history of Bulgaria. There’s a castle with great views across the modern city. The excavations stretch across to the adjacent hill. It was some capital. One of the towers in the lengthy walls was used as a prison for Baldwin of Flanders, who got permission to cross Bulgaria on his way to the crusades but then formed his own empire in North Greece and ungratefully attacked Bulgaria. He was captured and restrained for the rest of his life.

Arbanasi

Arbanasi, just up the road was the chosen home for aristocracy of Greek heritage who built houses here in the seventeenth century under Ottoman rule. It was a lawless time and the uncultured Turks were not inclined to protect Christians from bands of robbers. The restored house museum of Konstantsalieva is heavily defended with thick walls, stout wooden doors and steep staircases. There’s even a panic style store room for food. Apparently brigands still got in and murdered the householder when she had been left on her own by her husband.

The rooms contain exhibits demonstrating what life was like in those times-apart from weird and terrifying. The kitchen has three ovens - one for making yogurt.

The hotel is over the road from the restored house museum. It’s got wooden chalet style rooms and a swimming pool. But all that glitters is not gold. The bedside lights don’t have any sockets to plug into.

Food and Drink of Bulgaria

Food in Bulgaria has a strong Greek and Turkish influence. It consists of a great deal of fresh bread rolls, flatbreads, salads like shopska (tomato and cucumber with cheese grated on top), bean soups, marinated meat, chips and fried cheese. Most of the meat is chicken. Pork features occasionally. Lamb is unusual - maybe in the spring - and beef doesn’t generally feature. Cattle is only reared for dairy products. The Bulgarians claim to have invented yogurt and that turns up with the salad, or as dessert at most meals. Other desserts are very sweet, pancakes with syrup and nuts or baklava like pastries.

Last time I was here, my hotel stuck to a bland (on good days) ‘international’ menu. On Christmas Day we were served something unappetisingly dry and very dark brown. I inquired what it was. ‘Turkey, of course,’ replied the waiter smiling.

The local firewater is rakia, often made from plums. There’s vodka also of course, due to the Soviet heritage. Whatever my first day’s eating doesn’t agree with me and I spend most of the night in the bathroom. I’m tempted to spend the day by the swimming pool, but I’m also terrified of missing out, so I sneak a pillow out to the bus and commandeer the back seat.

Rusenski Lom Nature Park

Today, another fortress Cherven, contemporary with the Tsaravets fort of yesterday. But this one is not restored. It's a puff of a hike climbing two hundred or so steps for an up close view of the ruins (mainly just one tower some walls and several ruined churches) along the magnificent gorge in the Rusenski Lom Nature Park.

Then two rock monasteries. Up more steep paths in the park, with more gorgeous views. The frescoes depicting Jesus’ life in the UNESCO protected rock churches of Ivanovo date from the fourteenth century and are semi restored. The monasteries were occupied by a hermit monk order who focussed on silence and the spirituality of light - Hesychasm. Another monastery, Basarbovo, closer to the city of Ruse, was founded by a shepherd, Dimitar Basarbovo and he was buried there. But when they tried to transfer his relics to Russia via Romania many people were cured of the plague en route and so they kept his bones in Bucharest instead.

Ruse

Bulgaria’s third city of Ruse for lunch, in a rooftop restaurant with views over the Danube. Then a very quick wander round the main Svoboda (Liberty) Square and adjacent buildings of note. There’s the Baroque Profitability Building - as the name suggests it was intended to make some money. Then the Palace of Justice, Opera House and in the centre the Monument of Liberty, celebrating the Liberation from the Ottomans. Up the road the impressive gold domed Pantheon of National Heroes, an ossuary, with the bones of 453 war heroes from the uprising against the Ottomans.

The jury is out as to whether I would have had a better day by the swimming pool.

Shipka

South west through the Central Balkans National Park and beech forests climbing sluggishly over a long pass. We stop for a view across to a monument to the Russian liberation, thus arousing the ire of (maybe) 500 dogs barking in unison. The other side of the pass we stop to admire the Russian Church at Shipka, also a monument to the battle that took place here. It has a very ornate carved spire and the usual gold onion domes. The Bulgarian crosses have Islamic crescents underneath the Russian double crossed I.

Bulgaria's Valley of Roses

Through the Thracian Valley of the Kings (or roses), liberally scattered with tombs. The Thracians enjoyed wine and fighting each other. The tombs contained objects that are deemed to be useful in the afterlife. Wine, armour, even horses. According to Herodotus they also buried the favourite wife with the warrior. The ancient kingdom of Thrace spread across southern Bulgaria into Greece and the European finger of Turkey which is today known as Thrace.


In the centre of Kazenluk is a UNESCO recognised Thracian tomb accidentally discovered in 1944. But no one is allowed in that as exposure has damaged the frescoes. So there’s an exact copy just up the Funerary Hill with a dome and painted murals of chariots and music that you can pay to visit instead.

At Kazanluk there's also there's the Museum of Roses. Here we learn that they in the main grow the damascene pink roses here, which are best for oil. The petals must be picked before dawn, when there is the largest proportion of oil in the petals before they open.. Distillation vats on display. 3000 kg petals produce one kg of rose oil. Rose was first water brought to Europe during the Crusades, but rose oil devloped here as major export in in the nineteenth century.

There’s even a stop off at a Bulgarian country house at Tyzha with a dramatic mountain setting - Mount Bothev. We get a tour of the garden: vines, corn, tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins, other fruit and a very friendly dog. We are fed filo cheese pastries rakia aryan ( salt yogurt) figs and pears.

Plovdiv, the Second City of Bulgaria

Then to Plovdiv, the second city of Bulgaria and an ancient Roman town, with narrow cobbled streets and medieval and eighteenth/nineteenth century houses. There’s a tower dating back to the third century AD, in the walls of ancient Philippopolis, as it was called (after Phillip of Macedon who founded the city). Under the Romans it became the capital of Thrace named Trimontium, as it was built on three hills. Marcus Aurelius built the wall round the city.

The old walled town is a gathering of pastel coloured jettied buildings stooping precariously to leave the prescribed street width – enough room for two donkeys to pass. The city has expanded like Rome to cover seven syenite hills. One disappeared, as they quarried all the stone, but the other six all propose great view points.

As you drop down from the old town into the new, passing the very well preserved ( with some help) first century roman theatre and there’s a beautifully multi domed mosque. The modern city intertwines with the old nicely. A Roman stadium semi revealed and accessed by plate glass staircases beneath the main shopping street. At the other end of this elegant promenade are the two sections of the plate glass enclosed Roman forum. The avenues are lined with pavement cafes and fountains.

I clamber up Danov Hill on the edge of the main shopping street in the new town, for views in all directions. There are so many different routes to the top I’m giddy trying them all out. The Balkan Mountains to the north, the Rhodope Mountains and the ski resorts to the south; two more hills, one of which has Soviet martyr monuments. The old city on its three crags and the modern sprawl below. There’s a clock tower on top that chimes and an ugly satellite tower.


My room in Plovdiv is noisy next to a seat on a park, so Angel is a real angel and swaps with me. He also takes me and Ani out to dinner. Though conversation doesn’t exactly flow. He doesn’t speak English.

Asenovgrad

South to the Rhodope Mountains through the city of Asenovgrad famous for its wedding dresses then stopping at a Byzantine Fortress restored by king Asen in the early fourteenth century and ultimately destroyed by the Turks. There’s not much of the Fortress left but there are gorgeous views of the mountains and down to the church built there after a very slippery climb up marble steps.

Bachkovo Monastery

Beautifully framed by the mountains, another UNESCO monastery, Bachkovo, the second most important in the country. Originally founded in 1083, most of the current buildings date from the sixteenth to nineteenth century. Three churches and again in a an almost Buddhist style, wooden balconied terraces on the first floor for the monks cells. Incongruously, there are also satellite dishes.

One small St Nicholas Church has grotesque Doomsday frescoes of torture and richly clad (recognisable nobles it seems), being punished in hell, as they had refused to give the artist Zahari Zograf the money he had requested for a school for artists. There is the usual miraculous icon, the Virgin Mary Eleusa from the fourteenth century. It was hidden in a cave, but rediscovered as it emitted light in the forest. People thought it was a fire. They rescued the painting, but on three nights consecutively it returned itself to the cave. The monks eventually negotiated with the icon, who agreed to live in the monastery with them provided she was returned to the cave once a year. This is done in an annual procession.

The icon is hung prominently close to the doorway (according to her wishes) in one of the other two main churches, the Virgin Mary cathedral dedicated to the ‘Falling Asleep Mother Mary’. She is depicted on what I assume is her death bed. The decoration in here is extraordinary. It’s a cornucopia of icons, candelabra, frescoes and gilt. It’s so complex it ought to look completely overdone, but somehow it results in an incredibly spiritual experience. At least it does until someone begins a loud conversation, or a mobile phone trills out.

The mountain road up to the monastery is lined with stalls – refreshments, pottery, wooden utensils plenty of chopping boards and statues, amongst which garden gnomes are prominent.

Skiing in Bulgaria

The road now leads through larch and pine clad slopes and along snaking passes, to the ski resort of Pamporovo. Tall aparthotels and triangular prisms that are modern chalets. Last time I was in Bulgaria I was skiing at Borovets. It was cheap and I wanted to visit Bulgaria. A double whammy. As I’ve discovered before, cheap can be problematic. The slopes were hard packed snow and icy, not the most well-tended I’ve ever attempted to plummet down. And we were also a little dubious about the lift system. The story going round reported that ski lifts were built new in Switzerland. Then they were sold second hand to France and Italy. When they reached the end of their useful life there they were sent to Bulgaria. Ani says that the opposite is now true. Her friends go abroad, as it's cheaper to ski in the Alps than in Bulgaria.

The Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria

The scenery is stunning, as the way winds on through stone built hamlets. We have lunch in a Rhodopian speciality restaurant in the village of Sharoko Loko, a virtual open air museum of timber and stone houses, churches and cute bridges. We are fed potato pancakes - patatniks - made with cheese and coriander.

Almost to the Greek border, through immense gorges, and uphill to the Devils Throat Cavern. There’s a great deal of climbing on wet steps with rusting rails that would absolutely not be allowed in England. Below us a gorge, with supposedly the largets underground waterfall in Europe. though I'm struggling to glimpse it. There's a small waterfall once we emerge.

The best surprise of the day is our hotel outside the village of Trigrad, still further up the mountain from the cave. Here the slopes are swathed in spruce, there are a whole herd of horses in the pasture and I have somehow ended up with a suite and balcony that overlooks the whole wonderful panorama. I’m celebrating with an extremely large gin and tonic. It helps to mitigate the bag pipe playing at dinner. The bag pipes are huge, made out of goatskin.

First thing in the morning it’s pretty chilly. Another cave, Yagodinska, up yet another pretty curving and nausea inducing climb. This cave has a three levels, with one concrete path of just over a kilometre open to tourists. There are a few flights of rusty stairs up and down bringing it back to almost the same height. It has railings most of the way and isn’t too skiddy. And here there are mineral infused speleothems (my new word for the day): stalactites, stalagmites, stalagnates (columns where both meet) and cave pearls (layers of calcium carbonate round grains of other materials in strange nest like clusters).

Thankfully, there is little in the way of gaudy lighting, though the custom has not been entirely eradicated.. The highlight is the New Year Cave where local speleologists gather to spend the festivities. There’s even a Christmas tree that stays carefully preserved with all its decorations. Alongside, is a platform for celebrating weddings. But no photos are allowed that’s why there aren’t any here !

The scenery just gets better and better as we navigate the pine clad slopes to Dospat for a stunning view of the artificial lake and Turkish style pot stew lunches with potato, cheese and a little beef, (no pork for the local Muslim population of course).

Melnik

Now west, almost to the Serbian border and there’s a dramatic change of scenery. It’s still spectacular, but in the Pirin Mountains now, there are high sheer stone peaks, the valleys are flatter and the trees are deciduous again. And there are vines. Melnik is a wine making village (officially the smallest town in Bulgaria). It's impossibly picturesque. And extraordinary in that it is surrounded by 150 metre sandstone pillars or pyramids.

The hotel rooms in Bulgaria have been 'interesting'. Most very basic, foam mattresses, cotton sheets. Wi-Fi of various levels of acceptability. Sockets parting company with the wall. The room in Melnik is pretty with pine furniture and am iron bedframe. But this one still follows the pattern of light bulbs that don’t work. Half of the dozen bulbs here are dead. And that includes the main light in the bathroom. Perhaps it’s a Bulgarian tradition

Rila Monastery

We started our trip in the rain in Sophia and we've finished in the rain. At least that means there are no other visitors here at Rila, Bulgaria's' most famous monastery. St John , the most prominent Bulgarian saint, established a monastery here further up the mountain but it was repeatedly destroyed and the site was moved in fourteenth century. The only part of that monastery which survives is a defence tower. The rest was destroyed by fire. The remaining UNESCO monastery is the best example of revivalist (post Ottoman) architecture in the country (I'm told).

There are more frescoes by Zohari Zograf depicting scenes from the Bible. The interior is even richer than those we have already inspected. It’s bigger and wooden, much darker and there are a plethora of gold stands, candelabra and vivid paintings surrounded in gold filigree. But for me, although beautifu,l it does not have the same allure as the Bachkovo Monastery. The monks cells here are on terraces, with pretty painted stone arches and balustrades.

This is probably the earliest and freshest I ’ve ever eaten lunch real time. Trout from the fish farms that lie alongside the mountain streams beneath us in a Rila restaurant. We have to be at the airport at 12.20 for the return journey home. The plane is delayed, of course.

Read more about Bulgaria here.

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 over Nagorno-Karabakh, (read more about this here). 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.

Kiev, the Capital of Ukraine - Friendly and Efficient

The journey from Minsk, to Ukraine, is amazingly quick. (I'm on a lengthy trip, so I'm only visiting the capital, Kiev.) 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. It's 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. The national drink is called horilka. It's a clear spirit. While vodka means “little water”, horilka means “burning water”, as the drink is often flavoured with chili pepper.

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 a 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 (bedecked in the national colours) 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.

Ukraine - in a Nutshell

A Brief History of Ukraine

  • Ukraine has a long history. The territory of modern Ukraine has been inhabited since 32,000 BC.
  • As I've explained above, this area is viewed as the cradle of Russian civilisation, the centre for Slavic expansion. But this powerful nation, of the early Middle Ages, had disintegrated by the mid-12th century. During the 14th and 15th centuries, the present-day Ukrainian territories was conquered in turn by: the Golden Horde, the Crimean Khanate, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland. The last two then merged into the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.
  • Ukraine was then divided between Russia (as a Cossack vassal state) and Poland, in the seventeenth century. No-one seems entirely clear as to the exact rationale or the legality of the various treaties involved, but Cossack rebellions and pressures from the Ottoman Empire contributed.
  • The Great Northern War followed (the Cossacks allied with the Swedes). Poland was now partitioned and present day Ukraine was divided between the Russian Empire and Habsburg Austria, for over a hundred years.
  • Ukrainian nationalism developed in the 19th century. The Hapsburg dynasty collapsed after the first World War, Ukraine had a civil war, was briefly independent and was promptly swallowed up by the Russian Bolsheviks. Incorporation into the USSR followed.
  • In 1932 and 1933, millions of people in Ukraine, starved to death, in a devastating famine, known as the Holodomor.
  • After World War II, Ukraine was expanded and Crimea was transferred from Russia.
  • Ukraine became independent again when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.
  • Relations with Russia deteriorated from 2013 onwards, with political frictions over closer ties with Russia. On 20 February, the Russo-Ukrainian War began when Russian forces entered Crimea and annexed the area in 2014. This escalated into full scale war after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022.

Facts and Factoids

  • 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 was known as the 'Bread Basket of Europe', but Stalin redesignated it Russia's Bread Basket.
  • Ukraine is also the world's largest producer of sunflower seeds, enough gorgeous yellow fields to cover the whole of Slovenia.
  • Ukraine maintains the third-largest military in Europe after Russia and France - it has had to, because of ongoing conflicts with Russia, since the pro Russian alliance fell apart in 2014 and Russia annexed Crimea.
  • As I've mentioned above, the national dish is not Chicken Kiev. It is actually borscht, a distinctive red soup made from beetroot and beef and often associated with Russia - that doesn't go down too well with the Russians either.
  • Decorated Easter Eggs originated in Ukraine.

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 local 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 control its impact on the environment and the culture.

Bhutan is very much a country of mountains and valleys. 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 and India with mixed feelings. In the event, the landing at Paro Airport is thrilling, rather than frightening, preceded by 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. They have had to stop en route, to pick up a trained Bhutanese pilot, before they are allowed in.

Bhutan - Facts and Factoids

  • Bhutan is known locally as "Druk Yul" or "Land of the Thunder Dragon". Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy with a king (Druk Gyalpo) as the head of state and a prime minister as the head of government. Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism is the state religion.
  • Much of early Bhutanese history is unclear, because most of the records were destroyed when a fire ravaged the ancient capital, Punakha, in 1827. The Drukpa dynasty rose to power in the 16th century, but there have only been designated kings for the last century or so. .
  • Bhutan claims to base its success as a country on Gross National Happiness, rather than Gross Domestic Product. The GNH Index includes areas such as living standards, health, well-being, education, use of time and ecology.

Around Paro

Rinpung Dzong

I'm touring on my own, so have a whole mini bus, a betel chewing driver, Nima, and a guide, Payza to myself. I'm starting in the west of Bhutan, in the historic Paro area, which seems sensible, given that's where I've arrived. First, Rinpung Dzong (Fortress on Heaped Jewels). This is the first, it transpires, of many dzongs. It's the Tibetan word for a monastery which also serves as a fortress. The Bhutanese word, for the same thing, much less commonly applied, is goemba. The administrative headquarters of Paro stands proudly on a hill slope. In addition to the towering walls, it has splendid wall paintings, and 14 shrines and chapels. It's a hive of activity, with youthful monks wandering the astonishingly decorated wooden courtyards.

National Museum of Bhutan

Just up the slope from Rinpung Dzong, is the National Museum of Bhutan, housed in a circular building, which was once the watchtower for the monastery. Museums are a very long established tradition in the Tibetan Buddhist monasteries of Bhutan. This one has been adapted to hold over 3,000 works of Bhutanese art, covering more than 1,500 years of Bhutan's cultural heritage. That's Payza, in the painted doorway.

Tiger's Nest Monastery

Starting in the Paro area, however, does mean that Bhutan's piece de resistance, the fabled Tiger's Nest Monastery is next up, very early in the itinerary. 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.

Legend tells that Padmasambhava, a great Indian master, also known as Guru Rinpoche in Tibetan, was known for subduing demons in Tibet, in the eighth century, was summoned to Bhutan, from Tibet, to vanquish demons who were harassing the people of the Paro Valley. He made the journey, flying on the back of a tigress, found a cave high up in the cliffs above Paro and meditated there for three years, three months, three weeks, thus routing the demons. Some say that the tiger who carried the Guru was actually a manifestation of his disciple and consort, Yeshe Tsogyel.

The Guru, made many visits to the country in the eighth and ninth centuries, (I'm not sure if they were all on the back of a tiger). During those times he hid many sacred treasures, such as images and scriptures (called terma), at various places in Bhutan, 'to avoid their desecration or destruction during troubled times'. They've been retrieved over the years, by 'treasure finders'.

This place became known as "Tiger's Nest" and the fantastical stories grew and grew. Guru Rinpoche, it seems, returned to the site hundreds of years later, reincarnated as Tenzin Rabgye, the man who built the structure which turned the meditation cave into today's temple. A plethora of celestial beings and objects were involved in the process.

Whatever, Guru Rinpoche is regarded in Tibetan Buddhism, as the second Buddha. The monastery has become a sacred place of pilgrimage, known for its amazing energy. A complex was built up around this, one of 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 gilt pagoda like spires, colourful flags, golden prayer wheels, and cave temple totally reward 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.

After I've done my own meditation, (I could listen to the chanting for hours), 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.

In the Himalayas

I'm already being treated to incredible mountain views. Wandering on the Himalayan slopes, above trickling jade streams, are the Bhutanese takin, also called cattle chamois or gnu goats. As in Tibet, yak are ubiquitous.

Thimpu and The Royal Palace

The capital of Bhutan is Thimphu, at roughly 2,500 metres above sea level. It replaced the ancient capital city of Punakha, in 1961, as part of a modernising movement, by third Druk Gyalpo, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. Although increasingly tourist orientated Thimphu's main focus is still on agriculture and livestock. Modernisation included a structure plan which took the city into the early 2000s and oversaw expansion up the long Thimphu Valley. No room for airports in this capital.  

It's best seen from above, where you get great views of the Tashichho Dzong. This Buddhist monastery/fortress, on the northern edge of the city, has traditionally been the seat of the Druk Desi the head of Bhutan's civil government. (The office has been combined with the kingship since the creation of the monarchy in 1907). It dates back to the 1200s, but was rebuilt in traditional style as part of the renovation programme. Alongside is the Royal Dechencholing Palace, the official residence of the King. There are also other new political buildings, including the National Assembly.

Not to mention the world's highest golf course. Up here also, is the National Memorial Chorten. (Chörten is the Tibetan word for stupa.) With another spectacular view, this snowy stupa is surrounded by golden spires, bells, assembly halls, paintings, and a venerated photograph of the King, Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King), in ceremonial attire.

Thimphu is the only capital in the world without traffic lights. In fact, when traffic lights were installed the people objected and the city reverted to the use of white-gloved traffic police. Like most capitals though, it has plenty of shops and a string of handicraft centres, with artisans at work making statues, jewellery and carving wood. They all have to be visited. There's also a weekend market, primarily to serve the locals and replete with yak butter.

Gangteng Dzong and the Phobjikha Valley

Venturing now, through long winding mountain passes and icing sugar dusted peaks, east, into central Bhutan, Gangteng Monastery, in the beautiful Phobjikha Valley, is another must see on the tourist trail. Legend here tells that the idea of building a monastery 'on top of the mountains' , was first mooted by the famous fifteenth century treasure seeker Pema Lingpa, He was believed to be an incarnation of Guru Rinpoche, later known as King Terton. This enabled him to discover 108 treasure troves, their locations revealed to him in dreams. Then, he had to establish monasteries, to house the many sacred items, so establishing Buddhism firmly in the country.

Pema Lingpa visited the valley, but didn't build. He predicted that one of his descendants would instead. His grandson Gyalse Pema Thinley took up the challenge, in 1613, and the monastery expanded over time. It has a prime position, above the valley and boasts more amazingly decorated and 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. It was completely restored, in the 2000s. This is also the home of the famous cham dance, but not today.

The valley is U shaped and glaciated, almost 3,000 metres high. It's home to two rivers, so is partly marshland habitat, where lanky black necked cranes, from Tibet, migrate for the winter. the cranes circle the monastery three times, when they arrive in November and again, three times, when they depart in March. Phobjikha is not only stunning, but filled with more historical relics. A gorgeously painted gate and a shrine made from a wall of stupas feature. I'm very comfortable, the only tourist in my palace on wheels. My driver, Nima is shown below.

Wangdue Phrodang Dzong

Now, we're returning west, into Wangdue Phrodang, Bhutan's pastureland, with cattle, yaks and horses. Wangdue Phodrang Dzong is famous for its beautiful location, at the confluence of the Punakha and Tsang rivers. The dzong was built by Zabdrung Gnawang Namgyal, the founder of the Bhutanese Kingdom, in 1638. This dzong is definitely a fortress, designed to defend against invasion from the south. Again, the courtyard of Wangdue Phrodang Dzong is full of young monks, engaged in assorted games.

Punakha Dzong

The scenery has been sublime and the monasteries incredible. I'm almost dzonged out. There are plenty more we've passed by and not visited. But, finally, we have to take in the dzong at Punakaha, the old capital, on our way back to Paro. The Punakha Dzong is again, wonderfully 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 the Dratshang - the head monk.

Well, maybe just a brief stop at, close by, the relatively modern Khuruthang Lhakhang dzong, with its smiling chorten. The Lateral Road from Punakha to Thimphu, crosses the Dochu La (pass) at 3,116 metres. It features 108 chortens, built to commemorate the expulsion of Assamese guerrillas.

Life in Modern Day Bhutan

Whilst there is ongoing innovation in Bhutan, there is much about the way of life that is unchanged. The Bhutanese wear traditional dress.

For men, the gho, a knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt known as the kera. Women wear an ankle-length dress, the kira, which is clipped at the shoulders with two identical brooches called the koma. It's tied at the waist with a kera. Bhutanese law stipulates that all Bhutanese government employees must wear the national dress at work, as must all citizens when visiting schools and other government offices.

Architecture is traditional wattle and daub, no nails. The streets are lined with markets stalls. The village shops have wooden shutters, 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 bearing 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. Competitions are taking place by the sides of the road, as we motor through. The archers wear brightly coloured skirts with a series of swinging tails.

My tour crew are informative, hardworking and considerate. Until the last night, when I make the mistake of offering Payza 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. He says his wife doesn't understand him...I have to physically restrain him. Driver, Nima, arrives alone, in the morning, to return me to the airport, for Nepal.

Is Bhutan Worth It?

  • Is Bhutan worth it? It’s hugely 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 the first country in the world with specific constitutional obligations on its people to protect the environment -plastic bags are banned - and so is tobacco
  • It doesn’t have much to offer other than monasteries and mountains. (Bhutan has the world’s highest unclimbed peak, Gangkhar Puensum, a mountain so sacred by the Bhutanese that the government has banned mountaineering here). 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 and their locations are stunning. Switzerland meets the medieval Orient.

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 to the western palate. Breakfast is cornflakes, rice porridge, tomato sauce, guavas, chips and baked beans. Chilli and cheese are served with most meals.
  • Bhutan is not as humanitarian as one might expect. There are workers from other countries, such as India, who seem to have a rough time.

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 architecture perfectly framed.

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). Cognac distilleries proliferate. its famously good here - they're even allowed to call it cognac. And, although this is a predominantly Christian country there is still a significant Moslem population, attending mosques.

As usual, I'm drawn to the indoor market. A riot of colour, spice hillocks and sticky dried fruits.

Etchmiadzin Cathedral

Armenia is realtively small and most of our exploration is done in day trips out. The must see is Etchmiadzin Cathedral, the mother church of the Armenian Apostolic Church, in the city known as both Etchmiadzin and Vagharshapat. The original church dates to the early fourth century- between 301 and 303, according to tradition, built by Armenia's patron saint, Gregory the Illuminator, following the adoption of Christianity as a state religion by King Tiridates III. It was built over a pagan temple, symbolizing the conversion from paganism to Christianity. Etchmiadzin is said to be the oldest cathedral in the world. Gregory built it where he dreamed that fiery hammer descended from the sky.

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. This imposing and beautifully situated (on the edge of a cliff overlooking a ravine) Ionic style building, is the surviving only pagan temple in Armenia. It was probably built by King Tiridates I, in the first century AD, as a temple to the sun god Mihr. After Armenia's conversion to Christianity, it was converted into a royal summer house for Khosrovidukht, the sister of Tiridates III. According to some scholars, it wasn't actually a temple, but a tomb and that's why it survived the destruction of pagan structures. It had to be restored after it collapsed in a 1679 earthquake.

Close by there's adventure to be had. A scramble down the Garni Gorge to some basalt pillars. Not quite as exciting as The Giant's Causeway but enough to warrant its title, "Symphony of the Stones."

Lake Sevan

Serene Lake Sevan (Black Van to distinguish it from Lake Van in Turkey) is known as 'The Jewel of Armenia, for its sweet water and two scenic churches and a fortress. This is the largest lake in the Caucasus and comprises one sixth of the area of Armenia. It's fed by 28 rivers and provides 90% of Armenia's fish. It's even got beaches, overcrowded in summer.

The most famous cultural site is the picturesque Sevanavank monastery on the peninsula, once an island. There's also Hayravank, on the western shore is, and further south, Noratus Cemetery, has the biggest open air collection of ancient Armenian Khachqars (cross stones) and tombstones

Zvartnots Cathedral

On the outskirts of Yerevan, near the closed border with Turkey, are the ruins of Zvartnots Cathedral. It was built in the seventh century and is noted for its unique circular structure. Mount Ararat looms in the distance. It makes for a perfect picture postcard photo. It's in Turkey now, though the Armenians point out that it used to belong to them and still should do.

Geghard Monastery

Now we're out on the road. Medieval Geghard Monastery is in the Kotayk province of Armenia; it's one of the most visited monasteries, partially carved out of the adjacent mountain, surrounded by cliffs and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The curving path up, through the welcomearch, is lined with stalls. Women selling decorated roundels of Armenian Lavash bread.

Khor Virap Monastery

Another gloriously scenic sight, more tantalising (for the Armenians) views of Ararat, which is almost in touching distance here. Khor Virap Monastery is a pilgrimage site, on the Ararat plain. The ruined monastery was host to a theological seminary and was the residence of the Armenian Catholicos. Khor Virap is most notable as the prison of Gregory the Illuminator by King Tiridates III of Armenia, before he was converted. 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.

Noravank Monastery

Now we're well into the mountains, stunning views and chill alpine air. Noravank, another impossibly picturesque twelfth-century Armenian monastery in a narrow gorge made by the Amaghu River, near the town of Yeghegnadzor. It's a winding and dramatic approach. The complex includes the church of S. Karapet, the S. Grigor Chapel, and the Church of S. Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God). The latter is diminutive and extraordinarily appealing.

Tatev Monastery

Ninth century Tatev Monastery, the most scenically placed of them all, in south eastern Armenia. The 'ensemble' stands on the edge of a deep gorge of the Vorotan River. Like Machu Picchu the view is best from above

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

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