I didn’t have any big plans for my second day in Kraków, so I allowed myself a leisurely morning before setting out to investigate the random collection of things I had on my “to see” list. Mostly, I was tired of chaotic, ambitious days and wanted to leave the day somewhat unplanned so that I could go with the flow and make game-time decisions.

My first move was to the former location of the Kraków Ghetto. In Kraków, the ghetto was placed on the fringes of the city (at the time), and 15,000 Jews were crowded into an area previously occupied by 3,000 people. I took a tram there from my hostel and started at Ghetto Heroes Square where a memorial commemorates the ghetto victims. When the ghetto was operating, this square was where people were gathered before being sent to various concentration camps. There is a memorial there now, a series of empty metal chairs scattered across the square. A nearby sign explains that when the first Jews were being deported, they were told to bring things with them to start a new life. A lot of them brought chairs so that they would have somewhere to sit in their new homes. Reading that… it hit me pretty hard.

Ghetto Heroes Square with the Empty Chairs Memorial

A pharmacy located by the square was the only one that continued operating after the establishment of the ghetto. The owner, Tadeusz Pankiewicz, declined the offer to move his pharmacy to another part of the city. He lived onsite and was the only non-Jewish resident of the ghetto. He and his staff did what they could to help the ghetto residents, providing things like medicine, smuggled groceries, information from the outside, and even hair dye for those plotting escapes. Today, the pharmacy is home to a small museum.

Only a few blocks from the square is the Schindler enamel factory. Many of the Jews who weren’t immediately deported were kept in Kraków for labor purposes, forced to work in a couple Nazi-established factories and others supporting the war efforts. Oskar Schindler, whose story is told in the film Schindler’s List, is credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews, shielding them with the help of his factories and endless bribes. The building is a museum now.

Schindler’s factory
The plaque

A few portions of the ghetto wall are still standing, so I went to visit those as well. The one is marked with a plaque that says (in Hebrew and Polish), “Here they lived, suffered, and perished at the hands of Hitler’s torturers. From here they began their final journey to the death camps.” The top of the wall looks like a series of tombstones… I’m not sure if that was intentional or not, but it’s another one of those things that makes your heart hurt because it’s just not right.

Ghetto wall. You can see how the shape of the top of the wall looks like gravestones. Eerie.
Ghetto wall + children’s playground

Near there, I spotted a marker on google maps for a fortress! (Mom, skip this paragraph.) A few reviews said that while it’s closed, there are a few places where you can sneak inside, a prospect that clearly appealed to me. I walked around the building a few times but, much to my dismay, couldn’t find a reasonable way in. I found one spot that looked like it had been recently patched. Maybe that’s what they were talking about. In my assessment, you’d have to be either a child or a contortionist to squeeze inside now. It’s too bad… I peeked through the windows, and it looked like an interesting place, plus there’s supposed to be a great view from the roof!

The fortress

So, I settled for walking around the outside and then continued on my way to the Krakus Mound. What is this, you ask? Well, honestly I’m not really sure, and it seems like no one else is either. This is one of two mysterious prehistoric mounds in Kraków. No one knows when exactly they were built or why. This one has a solid wooden core, covered with soil and grass. Like… what????? IT IS SO WEIRD. It looks like a pimple on the surface of the earth. Legend says that it was built to honor the mythical city founder, King Krakus, and the other was to honor his daughter. But, no one knows. I just went for the view.

The Krakus Earth Pimple.
The view of Kraków from Krakus (hehe)
From the top of Krakus Mound, I spotted this building and was curious about what it was. Turns out, it used to be part of a limestone quarry that no longer operates because the limestone is gone. It was also a concentration camp for Polish prisoners during WWII and was used as part of the set of Schindler’s List. If I’d had more time or an adventure buddy, I would have tried to figure out how to get there to explore. Next time! (Yup, I guess I need to go back!)

My last major stop was Wawel Hill. I was coming from the outskirts of the city, so I took another tram in an effort to keep myself from walking into exhaustion.

Church of St. Bernardino of Siena. It’s near Wawel so while I was walking past, I decided I might as well pop my head in.
Inside. I like the ceiling!

Wawel Cathedral is one of the most prominent sights on the hill today. The first church on the site can be traced back to the early 1000s, soon after Poland became a Christian country. The current structure, however, was built in the 1300s and is actually the third iteration. The first was destroyed, and the second burned down – a common theme on Wawel Hill.

Today’s cathedral is quite the architectural hodge-podge. The 1300s cathedral was built in the gothic style, but portions of the previous Romanesque cathedral survived the fire intact and were retained in the new design. Later on, various chapels were added on to the side, and those are in the Renaissance and Baroque styles. Much of the interior was redone when baroque was all the rage, so it doesn’t even resemble what it would have looked like originally.

This is a great vantage point to see the many architectural layers of Wawel. The white limestone, like the bottom half of the tower, is from the old structure, built in the Romanesque style. The rest of the tower and the other brick area you can see are part of the 14c. Gothic church. The chapel with the gold dome is in the Renaissance style from the 16c. (and the dome was painted black during WWII to protect it. It’s 54kg of gold!). The chapel to the left with the black dome is Baroque from the 17c. So there you have it! Architectural collage.
The front of Wawel Cathedral

The castle has had plenty of its own struggles throughout the years. It fell victim to multiple fires, was occupied by the Austrian army during the partitions of Poland, and was further damaged and plundered during WWII. Kraków didn’t see nearly the destruction that Warsaw faced during the war, however, so Wawel and other landmark buildings did manage to survive. Today, the palace buildings house various museums.

A model of Wawel. You can see the cathedral in the back middle. To the left, there’s a gate into the castle compound, and the cathedral museum is in the building to the left of that. The U-shaped building in front of the cathedral is the royal kitchens, and the building behind that with the arches is the castle. The tower next to the kitchen has rounded corners which were supposed to help deflect cannonball fire.
Inside the castle compound with the cathedral up ahead to the left and the royal kitchens to the right.
There used to be other buildings here as well, as you can see by the foundation remnants in the lawn.

I skipped the castle museums and only bought a cathedral ticket because I wasn’t really feeling up to a big museum experience. With my ticket, I could go up the bell tower (which was all I really wanted), see the crypt, visit the cathedral museum, and walk around the inside of the church like a VIP. All that for just $4! Ha!

The cathedral is beautiful, but like so many others, there’s almost too much going on. It’s completely overwhelming to the point where you can’t appreciate anything inside. “Geez, ya think they have enough fantastic marble statues in here? Who’s this? Another dead guy?” “Ugh, there’s so much shiny gold in here that it’s making my head hurt!” I call it the “Vatican Museum Effect”. If you’ve ever been to the Vatican Museums in Rome, you know what I mean. There’s so much amazing art around you that it all seems “normal”, and instead of looking at each thing individually, you try to take it all in at once and completely lose your mind.

In the bell tower, there are a few different MASSIVE bells. I don’t know much about bells, but they were big. That seems like the most important takeaway. The biggest weights 12,600kg (13.9 tons), is only rung a couple times each year (and requires 12 bell ringers), and can be heard 30km (18.6 miles) away. I suppose that’s all impressive in the bell world. I mean, it sounds absolutely insane to me. Why make a bell that’s clearly a huge pain to handle?? I’m sorry, I’m probably being incredibly offensive to bell-lovers everywhere. Bells aren’t really my thing.

The great bell, Zygmunt
The bell tower was fun to explore…. there are little gaps like this one that you have to squeeze/duck through.

The crypt is filled with dead kings and queens and national heroes. I was excited because it’s the only fully-intact part of the Romanesque church. The cathedral museum has mostly Pope John Paul II paraphernalia. Did you know that he was the first non-Italian pope in almost 500 years? He also has a crazy life story (it’s worth a read!), could speak 12 languages, and is a Polish hero. There is a case of gifts he received during his time as pope, and the coolest was a cross that American astronaut Buzz Aldrin took with him to the moon! I just kept looking at it and thinking, “That cross has been to the moon and back!” Whoa!!

Inside the Romanesque-style crypt
Flowers at Wawel
More Wawel flowers

The final thing on my list was visiting the stained glass museum. I am obsessed with stained glass, so it sounded wonderful! The only problem was that their tour minimum is two people, and I am obviously only one person. You’ll be shocked to hear that it’s apparently NOT the hottest destination in Kraków. No one else turned up, so I was out of luck. That was a bit of a bummer, but it did mean that I had some extra time to relax back at the hostel. A dull silver lining, but a silver lining nonetheless.

This looks like the home of a woodland creature…. but it’s actually just part of the Wawel wall

Following my unexpected Bursa excursion, I went into a mini-panic because I only had three more days in Istanbul, and there was so much more that I wanted to do and see. My days of going out with only a half-baked plan were behind me, and I made myself an ambitious schedule for the days ahead.

I decided to go north for day 7 and try to visit all of the things on my list in the northern part of the Europe side of the city. The first of those destinations was Dolmabahce Palace (pronounced dol-ma-bah-che), another Ottoman palace that was built after Topkapi. This one is more of a traditional palace in that it’s on these big palace grounds and there’s one primary building, whereas Topkapi is more spread out and has courtyards instead of exterior gardens.

Why can’t every season be spring? I was loving the flowering trees on the grounds.

In fact, Dolmabahce was built with the intention of being more similar to the “typical” European palace. Sultan Abdulmecid I decided that a new palace was necessary because Topkapi was “medieval” and lacked the style and luxury of the palaces of other European monarchs. I can’t say that I walked through Topkapi and thought for even an instant, “Hm… I mean, this is nice and all, but it’s a little medieval for my liking. It could be more luxurious because at the moment, only 30% of the ceiling is covered in gold leaf and I think it would be better at 80%.” But then, of course, I’m also not royalty so maybe that’s why my vision for these types of things is inadequate.

Pretty, pretty.
Weird fountain.
Next to the clock museum on the grounds.

Anyway, once Sultan Abdulmecid decided that he needed a new palace, his court architects got down to business designing it. Fun fact… the architects were Armenian. The Balyan family served as court architects in the Ottoman Empire for five generations! That’s pretty cool. Nine different family members served six different sultans. They designed a huge number of palaces, mosques, Armenian churches, and public buildings in the empire during the 18th and 19th centuries. Garabet Balyan and one of his sons worked on Dolmabahce.

Walking around the gardens
The palace and my attempt to cover up the construction scaffolding with a tree.
Gate of the Treasury
Another sea gate. They never got less picturesque.

Want to venture a guess at how much Dolmabahce cost to build at today’s money value? More than $1.5 BILLION. Yeah, that’s right. Billion. Did they have enough money for this? Not quite… This was ¼ of the annual tax revenue in the empire. It was built at a time when finances were already becoming a bit of a problem, but the sultan wanted to make a statement that everything was fine, and the empire was as strong as ever. What better way to do that than to spend an exorbitant amount on a frivolous construction project?

This other building on the grounds now holds an art museum (I think)
Me, a weirdly green pool, and the palace.
I love these things… Shower caps for your feet so that you don’t damage the floors!
I always think they look like little elf shoes.

The palace is like the anti-tiny house. You know how people these days are all into minimalism and not taking up more space than they need? The sultans were totally not on the same page. There are 285 rooms, 46 halls, 6 baths, and 68 toilets in the palace. You know, just in case every wife, girlfriend, and child in the family simultaneously decided to find an empty room to sit in.

Between 1856 and 1924, six sultans used the palace as their residence. After that, it was used as a summer residence by Ataturk, the first president of the republic, and now it’s a museum. You’re not allowed to take pictures inside of course, but I kind of feel like Turkey owes me something, so I didn’t feel bad sneaking a few.


Excuse the crookedness of these interior pictures… that’s what happens when you take discreet pictures.
Every single room is like this. Nothing was left un-embellished.
Ceilings!!!!

Honestly, I can’t even begin to describe the interior of the palace. It’s one of those places where you could spend a month in each room, and even then you wouldn’t have enough time to take in the full splendor. The details are insane. I think I had a crick in my neck by the time I left because I spent so much time staring up at the incredible ceilings. Guess how much gold was used in the gilding of the ceilings? I almost don’t even want to say because it’s too ridiculous. Fourteen tons. Like… what?!?! The extent of my notes for the entire visit was “gold leaf radiators”. Honestly, I think that says more than enough. Why do you need gold leaf radiators???

This other building on the grounds now holds an art museum (I think)
The exterior
What is a garden without some hardcore landscaping?

There were two rooms in particular that I could have spent the rest of my life in. The first was a staircase, and trust me when I say that it’s the most beautiful staircase in the universe. You can look up pictures of the Dolmabahce Palace crystal staircase if you don’t believe me or if you just want to see how marvelous it is. The balusters (the vertical posts that support the railing) are all made of crystal, there’s a crystal chandelier hanging in the middle, and the ceiling/roof is made of translucent glass that floods the space with light. Besides all of that, the surrounding ceilings are amazing. I think I stood in that staircase so long that the guard had time to get a little suspicious of me and then get un-suspicious again because I spent the entire time not touching anything and just staring up with my eyes wide and my jaw dropped.

Entering into the Ceremonial Hall

The other room was the Ceremonial Hall, and I think that my parents’ entire house could fit inside that single room like 15 times. Does anyone really need such a room?? But “need” isn’t exactly the motivating word in these situations, so I’ll stop trying to make sense of things and instead just enjoy the masterpieces that resulted from too much money and too big egos. The world’s largest Bohemian crystal chandelier hangs in the hall, and it weighs 4.5 tons. Ha. The ceilings though… they’re something else. I did manage to sneak an illegal picture of those though, so it’s your lucky day. Don’t turn me in.

Ceiling of the Ceremonial Hall

The grounds surrounding the palace are also quite nice, though they aren’t nearly as big in area as the Topkapi courtyards. It’s right on the Bosphorus, so there are gates that lead directly to the water. The view on the day I went was beautiful because, for once, I was smart and visited an outdoor space when the weather was nice. Imagine that.

Pretty flowers <3
Okay just one more…
Beautiful day!
The Bosphorus
Me with a gate to the Bosphorus

Nearby, there are two other Dolmabahce-related structures. The first is a clock tower just outside the gates, and it was designed by Sarkis Balyan, son of Garabed. It cost $350 million in today’s currency which is, in my opinion, a VERY reasonable amount of money to spend on a clock. You know what they say, time is money!

The second is a mosque designed by Garabed. It was originally commissioned by Sultan Abdulmecid’s mother, and he continued the work after her death. As a result, the building has a bit of a feminine quality to it. The towers are more slender than those of other mosques, and there’s a lightness and delicacy to the design that goes beyond what is seen in most mosques.


Dolmabahce clock tower
The clock tower, and you can see the tower of the mosque in the background.
See how slender the towers are as compared to other mosques?

That’s some serious dome detail!
Inside Dolmabahce Mosque

After visiting the palace, clock tower, and mosque, I felt like I had adequately seen the Dolmabahce collection. I still had a lot more to see, though, so I kept moving!

To be continued for now… I don’t want to overload you (any more than I already have, that is).

By the time I hit day 4 of my time in Istanbul, I decided that I need to step up my game if I wanted to leave the city feeling like I had seen what I wanted to see. I always have these grand plans of waking up early, working out, sightseeing, getting home at a reasonable hour, being productive, and going to sleep at a time that allows me to wake up the next day to do it again without feeling like I’m dying. As you might expect, things rarely go this way. Usually I have one day where I wake up, work out, sightsee… and then end up meeting people and hanging out and getting back late… and then either passing out or staying up late to get work done. And the next day, the plan falls apart before it even starts.

As much as I love routine and being productive, I’m making a huge effort not to skip out on opportunities to spend time with people because that’s always what I remember the most about my trips. I have so many awesome friends that I never would have met if I had stayed in my comfort zone. My comfort zone, by the way, is a place where I never talk to strangers or put myself in a position where I’m uncertain about the outcome. Comfortable, yes. Boring, also yes. So yeah, things didn’t go exactly according to the grand plan, but I think they turned out even better.

Point of that tangent was that by day 4, I still had a lot to see. Since I just needed to get moving on SOMETHING, I picked the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish) as my destination for the day and was off.

We learned about the Hagia Sophia in my architecture history classes in university, but heck if I remember anything from those. That’s not true, I do remember a few things, but apparently not the historic details of the Hagia Sophia because I felt like I was going in blind again. No problem! I had a written guide from the internet, and with no expectations, you’re setting yourself up to be amazed.

Top of a column (capital) from the second church

The current Hagia Sophia started out as a church, built in 537AD by the Byzantines. There were two churches previously built on the same site. First, the Great Church was built in 360AD and destroyed in 404AD during riots that took place in the city. A replacement church was built in 415AD and destroyed in 532AD during a revolt that burned down half the city. When the last structure was built, Europe was in the Dark Ages, and Istanbul was emerging as a center of Christianity.

There are a few remaining parts of the second Hagia Sophia predecessor from Theodosian times
I assumed this was a ceiling coffer, but I could be wrong
You can see how massive the space is

The main dome of the structure is 182 feet tall and 104 feet wide, and at the time of its construction, it was the largest dome in the world. It held that title for 900 years until it was overtaken by the Florence Cathedral (fun side fact: construction on the Florence Cathedral was started before anyone knew a way to complete the dome. They figured that was a problem for the future generations to figure out – since building a church took an eternity – and the final solution was some brilliantly engineered machinery that no one besides the inventor thought would work). The entire Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris can fit inside!

The Crusaders took over in 1204, and for almost 60 years, it was under the control of the Roman Catholic Church. Shockingly (not), during this time, many of the riches inside were stolen and sent to Italy, though the golden ceiling mosaics were left mostly untouched. I guess those are slightly harder to steal than other things.

When the Ottomans took the city in the 1450s, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. This involved covering or removing any images of living beings, and the mosaic ceilings were plastered over and forgotten about. Despite this unfortunate redecorating, the conversion to a mosque kept the building safe and maintained. Four minarets were added to the outside, and the prayer niche was moved to face Mecca instead of Jerusalem.

The minarets were added when it was converted to a mosque. You can see that they don’t match the rest of the building.
Fountain for washing before Muslim prayer
Close up of the fountain

At the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the mosque was closed and converted into a museum. The golden mosaics were rediscovered beneath the plastered ceilings and were in generally good condition. Now, the building is a clear mix of Christian and Islamic elements with many of the furnishings remaining from the mosque, including giant, calligraphed medallions, and the original Christian architecture and décor.

View of the main dome

I had no idea what to expect, I had no idea how long it would take me to visit, and I definitely went a bit later than I should have… oops. It wasn’t a big deal though because I wasn’t in Istanbul at a terribly busy time, so waiting in the line to get inside only took maybe 40 minutes. I people-watched to entertain myself, and before I knew it, I was inside.

The building is under construction, but it doesn’t even matter. I mean, I’m sure it would have been great if half of the main hall wasn’t filled with scaffolding, but even with it, you could see how impressive the space is. The ceiling looks like it’s miles away, and since there aren’t big, bulky columns or anything crowding the dome, it seems even bigger. I spent my first 20 minutes staring at the ceiling and trying not to walk into anyone.

The place is so big that even though it was crowded, it didn’t feel like it was. It was probably loud too, but sound had a way of just getting lost. Sometimes I like to sing worship songs when I’m visiting churches (what can I say? They get me in the mood), but I don’t want anyone to hear me… so spaces like that are perfect. I sang to myself, and as soon as the sound left me, it was lost to the open space and the murmurs of the people around me.

So many chandeliers!

From here, I’m going to use the photo captions to give you a mini-tour… I think that will work out the best.

Entrance and ceiling mosaics


Mosaics in the exit corridor

Doors supposedly made with a wooden core of wood from Noah’s Ark. I’m sure it’s true…
This mosaic is the “Donation Mosaic” showing Mary with baby Jesus. Constantine is on the right offering a model of the city, and Justinian is on the left with a model of the Hagia Sophia

One of the most interesting things, in my opinion, was the variety of marble that was used in the construction. It’s kind of like they went to the marble warehouse, couldn’t decide which one they liked best, and decided to leave with one of everything.
Funky, right?

Weeping column. I’m not sure which is right, but I’ve heard two different stories about what you’re supposed to do here. First is that you stick your thumb in the hole and spin your hand counterclockwise. If you make it all the way around, your wish comes true!
The second is that the column was blessed and sticking your finger into the hole can cure your sickness… though I assume it probably just ended up spreading sicknesses because I can’t imagine they ever cleaned it.


The Mimber, where the Imam stands during Friday services.
The prayer niche, adjusted to face Mecca instead of Jerusalem
I’m obsessed with all of the detailing
The Omphalion, where Byzantine Emperors sat during the service and also where their coronations took place

Golden gates because why not?

Going upstairs…

Ramp to the upper gallery
Leave no surface un-mosaic-ed
Mary holding baby Jesus and sitting between Byzantine Empress Irene and Emperor John II (ruled from 1118-1143AD)
Jesus with Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX (ruled 1042-1055AD) and Empress Zoe.
Jesus with Mary to the left and John the Baptist to the right. This was made at the end of the Crusader occupation of the church.

Casual ceiling paintings


Booo construction scaffolding 🙁
In the upper gallery

View of the Bosphorus
Blue Mosque from the window
Baptistery basin
Buttresses added during Byzantine times

One of the negatives and also sometimes positives of extended travelling is that you don’t necessarily have time to do a lot of research. I make sure that I hit the major sights (thank you, tripadvisor) and put a LOT of trust in the people working reception at my hostel to tell me what I should go see. Sometimes, that means that you know you should visit something, but you have no idea what it is… and then you go there and learn about it and are like, “DUDE! THIS IS SO COOL!”

SO COOL

For me, that happened with the Basilica Cistern, or Yerebatan Sarnici in Turkish (Sinking Cistern). The “basilica” part of the name comes from the fact that there was formerly a basilica on the site. I had no idea what it was, but I saw a bunch of tour groups going and the self-guided walking tour I was following mentioned it, so I figured I should check it out. I know, all of this makes me sound like a complete idiot, but sometimes the best way to learn about something is to just go and experience it (things I tell myself that may or may not be completely true… sometimes it’s probably good to have a clue, but that’s not the way I’ve been operating recently).

The Basilica Cistern was constructed during the Byzantine days, between 527-565AD by Emperor Justinianus I. It’s a ginormous underground water cistern, 140m x 70m and with 9m tall columns. The capacity is around 100,000 tons of water which translates to 26.5 million gallons. There are 336 columns total, placed in 12 rows of 28 columns. These are joined by arches and vaulted ceilings that carry the weight of the city above. The brick walls are over a meter thick, and they and the floors are plastered with a thick layer of special brick dust mortar for waterproofing.

Seemingly endless

The cistern was in active use until the Ottomans conquered the city. They preferred fresh water as opposed to sitting water, so the underground reservoirs went mostly unused with the exception of feeding the nearby Topkapi Palace gardens and a few homes. In the 1540s, a Dutch traveller visited Istanbul in search of Byzantine monuments. When he noticed residents pulling water out of their floors, they directed him to a staircase that led into the reservoir. He explored it using a small boat, took measurements, and published his findings in a book that piqued more Western interest in the cistern.

There were repeated renovations in the 1700s – early 1900s to reinforce various part of the structure, and it wasn’t until a major 1985 restoration that the complete scale of the cistern was discovered. After removing 50,000 tons of mud (and probably trash and bodies and who knows what else), the full height of the columns was visible.


You can see that the column capital (the thing at the top) on the closer column is different from the column behind it

The columns are all made of different materials and are of different architectural styles because, in classic ancient fashion, they were swiped from other structures. They always say that it was from ruined structures, but I like to imagine that there was a big column-pilfering problem in ancient times and sometimes people would wake up in the morning to discover that the columns on the local temple were gone… and then they would go steal some others and so on until someone finally sucked it up and just made some new ones. Estimates are that it took 7,000 slaves to construct the cistern, and that doesn’t even include the workforce required to build the 12-mile long aqueduct that fed it.


Check out those ceilings!

Tear column

There are three columns of particular interest. One is carved with the images of eyes and tears, paying tribute to the hundreds of slaves who died during construction. (It’s a good reminder that all of this amazing ancient stuff usually came at a high human cost.) The other two are normal columns, but the bases are two big Medusa heads that scholars think came from the Temple of Apollo near Ephesus (another city in Turkey), but no one knows for sure. One is sideways and one is upside down, a configuration explained by scholars as showing the change from pagan religion to Christianity. Other legends say that they were placed there for protection and are oriented that way to keep them from turning people to stone. I think that they were just so tired of moving them that they said, “This is close enough, we’ll leave them like this.”


Hey, Medusa
The girl who took this for me definitely thought I was a weirdo
Upside down selfie!
First view when walking down the stairs

Now, there are walkways for tourists to tour the cistern, unfortunately replacing the boats that were formerly used. That would have been awesome.

As I took the steps underground, my jaw literally dropped when I got my first look. It’s huge. I know, like duh it’s huge, but when you see it in person and realize that you’re underground, it’s unbelievable! And it was chilly down there which I suppose would have been nice if it wasn’t also chilly outside. My brain couldn’t even imagine the whole thing filled with water, and with no lights down there it would have been CREEEEEPY. Eek. Imagine going in there while it was full, with no clue what you were going to find in a little boat in the darkness with just a lantern. No, thank you. It probably smelled weird too.


I’m obsessed with this brick work

Anyway, despite the fact that I didn’t get to ride on a boat, it was spectacular. The space seems to go on forever, and when you think about the logistics that went into actually constructing it, it’s mind-blowing. All of that. Underground. Over 300 huge columns. So. Many. Bricks. And the ceilings are super high which means they had some sort of scaffolding. And then the aqueducts to feed it! Geez!

After wandering around much longer than anyone else and in a constant state of marveling, I made my way to the exit. Then, if you aren’t already aware of the expanse of the thing by the time you leave, you pop up on the surface, blocks away from the entrance. And it’s bright outside and noisy and bustling and you’re like, “WHAT IS HAPPENING?” because you just emerged from this underground cave and now you’re in the middle of the city. The whole transition was very confusing, and I felt like a time traveler or something.

In conclusion, the Basilica Cistern is super cool, and if you’ve ever wanted to feel like a time traveler, it’s the place for you. Except now that I’ve warned you, maybe you’ll just go and not feel it and think that I’m insane. Maybe I am.

I had a brilliant idea to maximize my sightseeing efficiency in Batumi: a sightseeing run. In hindsight, I see the million flaws with this idea and also the million better options, but I didn’t see those at the time, so here we are.

What is a sightseeing run, you ask? Well, exactly what it sounds like. Go for a run, stop at any sights, keep running. I thought this sounded like a perfect idea because I wanted to work out, I wanted to go sightseeing, and sometimes, I feel like walking between sights just takes too long. I planned to run along the boulevard by the beach so that I didn’t have to deal with cars and could have nice views of the water along the way.

More beach pictures! The weather was much better on Day 2.

Since I’ve given you no real information about Batumi yet, here’s a little background for you. Like I briefly mentioned, Batumi is the major beach resort of Georgia, located on the western side of the country along the Black Sea. It’s the second-largest city in Georgia after the capital city, Tbilisi, and its economy is centered around tourism, gambling, and its port which is the biggest in Georgia.

The harbor

Historically, the first record of a city on the site of Batumi was an ancient Greek city, Bathus, in the 4th century BC. The Romans conquered it in the 2nd century AD, and after that, it went through a series of rulers along with the rest of the cities in the region.

Architecturally, the city is particularly interesting. This is something I absolutely didn’t expect going in and was pleasantly surprised by (though of course, I knew nothing going in, so it’s not very surprising that I wasn’t ready for what I found). Many of the buildings are from the 19th century and are a mix of different styles: European and Asian, Georgian, Turkish, and Soviet, etc. There’s also a strong sea theme, so you can see a lot of mythical sea creatures woven into the architectural details. And the colors! There are so many pretty and unexpected colors.

The Batumi Drama Theater in the background with creatively-named Theater Square in front of it.

Recently, there’s been a push to grow Batumi, and these historic buildings have been joined by new, modern high-rise buildings. It was already a strange architectural mash-up, and now it’s even more so. Just wait… you’ll see what I mean in the pictures.

Okay, back to my sightseeing run. I hadn’t worked out in quite a while, so I thought maybe three miles (5k) or so would be a good start (I’m not a good runner AT ALL, so even this was kind of a stretch). Plus, with the sightseeing component, it allowed for “photo stops” aka “find something to take a photo of because you don’t want to run anymore” stops. It seemed like a good way to ease back into running. Maybe it would have been, too, but after I had gone two miles and hadn’t turned around yet, I saw some mountains in the distance and decided that I wanted to be closer to them. Very specific, I know. So, I kept going, and I kept thinking that I was going to reach the point where I had some epic mountain view and would know that it was time to turn around and go back.

The sky!!
So many shades of blue!!

The path was nice, too. It went right along the beach, there were interesting buildings to look at, and there were barely any other people around. Then, somehow I was more than four miles away from home and seemingly no closer to the mountains. I could have kept going. I kept thinking that if I just went a litttttttle farther, I would hit a good spot to turn around after the next bend. Or the next bend. Or the next bend. That maybe would have been fine, but I did NOT plan ahead for that kind of adventure and was carrying no money and no bus ticket. Not my brightest moment. Note to self: always bring bus money.

Found a hammock along the way…
???
No clue what this is but weird, right?

There’s also a ton of public art everywhere, including a series of silhouettes doing various things while holding hearts.
More public art

This fountain was cool… Her wheels spun around and kicked up water!
This is a tower celebrating the Georgian alphabet

View on the boardwalk during my sightseeing run
A park along the boulevard
“The Colonnade”, designed as an entrance to the beach. The concept, as you might guess, was developed by someone who had recently gone to Italy. Now it’s just a random and confusing monument, in my opinion. Though definitely pretty.
More interesting architecture

Finally, I had to accept that if I hadn’t gotten a good view of the mountains yet, it probably wasn’t going to happen and that I needed to turn back or risk collapsing from exhaustion. Oh yeah, I also didn’t bring any water. Or money to buy water. And I had only eaten a granola bar for breakfast. I know, I know, but remember that I was planning for a two- to three-mile jog/walk/stop, not an almost nine-mile (15k) adventure. Hehe. Oops.

The closest I ever got to the mountains… so not close at all
Right near my turn around point… good question, random street art. Where the heck am I?

My post-experience thoughts about this whole thing:

  1. What on earth was I thinking?
  2. Why didn’t I just rent a bike?
  3. What on earth was I thinking?
  4. I don’t even like to run.
  5. At least I got a good workout.

After I got back to the hostel, cooled down, drank some water, and ate something, I changed and went out again because despite the ridiculous distance I had covered, I had only seen the sights along the coast and still had the entire downtown area to check out. This time, I aggressively plotted my route to avoid covering any extra distance, and off I went.

I did NOT want to leave the hostel again after I got back and sat down, but it was my last day in Batumi, so I didn’t feel like I had a choice. My legs were killing me, and I walked at an impressively slow pace the entire time.

My loop around the city included a whole pile of churches, whatever parks I happened to stumble upon (because who doesn’t like parks??), some city squares, and a few of the tall buildings that I didn’t get to on my “run”. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves for the most part because it’s not even worth me trying to explain without visual aids!

A building on Europe Square. Does it not look like it was taken straight out of a fairy tale?
More buildings along Europe Square, all so different from each other!
There’s an astronomical clock on one of the buildings (farthest to the left in the picture above), and this was the diagram explaining it. I looked at it for about 5 minutes before deciding that there was too much going on and taking a picture to try to figure out later.
The astronomical clock from below
This statue on Europe Square is of Medea, a daughter of a Georgian king, holding the Golden Fleece. The story goes that she helped Jason, the legendary Greek hero, to steal the fleece.

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church
This thing is called Chacha fountain. Chacha is a classic Georgian alcohol made from distilled grapes, and supposedly you can get free chacha from the fountain for 10 minutes each day. Who knows if this is true or not but either way, hilarious.

This building, Batumi Tower, was designed by a Georgian architect, is 200-m tall (and is the tallest building in Batumi), and was supposed to house a technological university. Instead, it got sold and now it’s a hotel. And there’s a ferris wheel in the side. Did I mention the ferris wheel? Like… what????
Pretty sure these are condos

The Batumi Drama Theater in the background with creatively-named Theater Square in front of it.
Rocks!

This is a sculpture called Ali and Nino, inspired by a story about a Georgian princess, Nino, and an Azerbaijani Muslim, Ali, fall in love but are kept apart by WWI. It’s like the Romeo and Juliet of the Caucasus. The two figures move back and forth, literally through one another.
Holy Mother Virgin Nativity Cathedral. Quite the mouthful of a name… maybe it’s shorter in Georgian

Armenian church!

I had a train ticket to go back to Tbilisi the next morning, so as much as I enjoyed my time chilling in peaceful Batumi, it was time to move on to the next adventure. I asked at the hostel about how to get to the train station so early in the morning, and the guy said that the buses weren’t running yet, but I could probably get a marshrutka there.

An architecturally-hip Catholic church

I walked out to the bus stop around 6:45 because my train was at 7:30, and it was like I was the only person awake in the entire city. As you might imagine, I started doubting that there were even marshrutkas running after not seeing any for the first 10 or so minutes waiting at the bus stop. This one taxi driver kept asking me if I wanted a ride, but I was determined not to take a taxi. He asked where I was going, and I told him the train station (using a very unhelpful Georgian phrasebook I found online). He said he would take me there for 20 lari. HA! I literally laughed at him. I didn’t know how much it SHOULD cost to get there, but 20 lari is like $8 and is completely ridiculous for a 5-minute ride.

After I laughed at him, he lowered his price to 10 lari, and when I said no again, he changed it to free. I apparently am a phenomenal negotiator… This conversation all happened through hand motions and google translate because he spoke ZERO English. When he said he would take me for zero, I typed, “Why???” into google translate. I thought that was a valid question. He just looked at it, laughed, and gave me the “come along” hand wave.

And this is a hotel

At this point, I still hadn’t seen any marshrutkas drive by, and I was starting to get a little worried about missing my train. I figured what the heck, and off we went. Let me just say that if I was in practically any other country, I never would have done that, but this was Georgia and I was mostly not worried about it. We got close to the train station, and I started pointing that I wanted to go there. From our broken conversation, I gathered that we’d had a slight misunderstanding. I thought I was saying that I wanted to go to the Batumi train station to take the train to Tbilisi. HE thought I was saying that I wanted to go to the Tbilisi train station. I mean, I guess I technically did, but not in his car!

Thanks to my mostly worthless Georgian phrasebook, I knew how to say, “Stop here!”, and I said it on repeat until he listened. He kept trying to tell me that he would take me all the way to Tbilisi for free, and still I have no idea why. Eventually, I convinced him (in my fluent Georgian) to take me back to the Batumi station, and that was that. He didn’t ask for any money, and I’m almost positive that he would have been insulted if I had offered.

It wasn’t the most conventional method of getting to the train station, and I’m sure my mother is losing her mind right now, but hey, it worked. I’m happy to report that the rest of the trip was uneventful. I took the train, I took the metro, and soon enough, I was back at my hostel to enjoy a couple more days in Tbilisi.

My southern adventure continued with a relocation from Kapan to Goris. The hotel staff in Kapan spoke no English, so I had to rely on my Armenian skills to figure out how to get there via public transportation. Here’s basically how my conversation with the hotel guy went:

Me: Tomorrow I want to go to Goris. Is there a marshrutka?
Guy: Yes, at 9 and noon.
Me: Do I have to call? (to reserve a seat)
Guy: Yes.
Me: Can YOU call?
Guy: Yes.

I crossed my fingers that I had actually said what I wanted to say, and sure enough, the hotel guy knocked on my door at 8:50, right as I was getting ready to walk out. He walked me out to the street, the marshrutka came, and I was off! Nice.

Along the drive from Kapan to Goris. Excuse the fact that they’re blurry… the window was dirty and kept fogging up, so use your imagination.

In Goris, I was staying with one of Kelsey and Olivia’s friends, Mary, who I had never met but has an extra room and was willing to take me in. Cool! She was going to call me when she finished with work for the day, but by chance, we bumped into each other on the street! Goris is a decently big town, so I think that’s impressive. She was walking up the street towards me, I looked at her and thought, “Hmm… she doesn’t fit here,” and I gave her an inquiring look. She apparently thought the same about me and said, “Are you Lara?” So that’s how we met.

Goris is a city (town?) of about 20,000 people. I wasn’t expecting that when I got there. I guess I always think that places are going to be tiny little villages with nothing going on because everyone always acts like there’s nothing happening in the country outside of Yerevan. I was pleasantly surprised! It’s nestled in the mountains, right near the eastern border with Artsakh, so the scenery is stunning. The area has been occupied since at least the 700s BC, and for much of that time, people lived in caves in the weirdly shaped mountains around the town. The caves were inhabited until the 18th century!

I think one of my favorite things about the south is that in every place I visited, the topography was sooo different. The cities aren’t even that far apart, but they look nothing like each other. In Goris, if you walk around the “Old Goris” area, it’s like you stepped onto another planet. I can’t even begin to describe the rock formations, so check out the pictures to see what I mean.

These mountains. Are so weird. But I love them.
Pretty Goris, pretty mountains.

Self timer + rock = pretend photographer

Mary and I walked around Old Goris a bit during the evening after I got into town, and I went on a more intense trek the following day. I tried to follow an actual hike through the mountains, but it was poorly marked and very confusing. Instead, I ended up wandering around on random cow paths that went into some of the strangest places. Oh, well. That was more interesting anyway… at least, I assume it was but couldn’t tell you for sure because I still don’t know where I was supposed to walk.

Cave dwelling

As far as I can tell, the actual path doesn’t go past any of the coolest things. My favorite part of the walk was checking out some of the cave homes. So many of them had doors that you needed to rock climb into, and you could see where the previous inhabitants had chipped hand and foot holes into the rock to help them climb up. Can you imagine having to rock climb into your house?? My reaction to that question is, “IS THAT NOT THE COOLEST THING YOU’VE EVER HEARD?” but I imagine that some of you are probably more on the, “Ummm that sounds horrible,” page. I love enclosed spaces which means that caves are just about my favorite thing, and I’ve now officially decided that my dream home is a cave home (with a very comfy couch inside, of course).

This is one of the caves I climbed into and immediately fell in love with.
Chimney above the window.
Door to the left, window to the right.
Cave window views.

After I finished getting lost in the weird mountains and creeping around abandoned cave houses, I headed into town to check out a few of the sights. I have to say that the buildings in Goris are some of my favorite in the whole country. I love stonework, and the town is overflowing with pretty stone buildings. Even the abandoned buildings look beautiful!

Picturesque
Here’s a series of my favorite random buildings from around town. I’m in love.

I visited two churches in town, St. Hripsime and St. Gregory the Illuminator. St. Hripsime was originally built in the 4th century, and St. Gregory was built in the early 1900s. St. Hripsime is small and pretty and was rebuilt a few times, first in the 1500s and then in the early 2000s. the inside feels like you’re inside a cave… appropriate. St. Gregory the Illuminator Church is slightly more Armenian-church-typical. The inside is plain, and the outside design is nothing extraordinary, but the stone color is a pretty grey that I enjoyed. They also had a very nice gate entering into the grounds, and metalwork is another craft that I’m a big fan of.

St. Gregory the Illuminator Church. Check out the gate in front.
On the side of the church (between the door and the window to the left), you can see artillery shell damage from the war with Azerbaijan

Between the natural beauty of the surroundings and the man-made beauty of the town, it’s definitely on my list of favorite places in Armenia. Mountain views, easily accessible adventure, caves, stone buildings… what more do you need?

St. Hripsime
One thing that consistently makes me sad is the amount of trash that’s just laying around the country. This could be such a pretty river, but instead it’s polluted with garbage.
Field of trash encountered during my hike.
The central square
Spot the little cave door!
Sulfur stream. You can see the baths to the right side of the picture.

A trip to Tbilisi isn’t complete without a trip to the famous Tbilisi sulfur baths. According to legend, the sulfur hot springs are the reason why a settlement was started in that location in the first place. “Tbilisi” comes from the Georgian word for “warm”, tbili. The sulfur baths are still going strong today, and there are a few different bathhouses to choose from, ranging from super shady looking to super expensive looking. Supposedly, the water is great for your skin, and you can get a body scrub and massage to go along with it. There are public baths (separated by gender) or private, and I’m guessing most tourists go with the private option. There are stories about mothers going to the public baths to scope out wives for their sons because that’s not weird at all (everyone is naked, in case you didn’t catch that). I personally don’t understand why I would want to soak in questionable rotten egg water for an hour, but maybe if I go back I’ll have to check it out as one of those “try it once” experiences. Eh. Or maybe not.

Doesn’t this look like something out of a fantasy movie? Elves. Definitely elves in this movie.

 

Do you remember Mike’s friend Hovsep who showed us around Vanadzor? If not, Mike (my brother) has a friend, Hovsep, who he met about 4 years ago when he was in Armenia doing a service project. When my family went to Vanadzor, where Hovsep lives, he showed us around.

While we were loitering by the sulfur baths, plotting our next move, I saw a guy who looked vaguely familiar walking up the sidewalk. I was 80% sure that it was Mike’s friend, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember his name (there are too many Armenian “H” names – Harout, Hagop, Hrant, Hovsep, Hovhannes, I could go on). I wasn’t willing to commit to a hello on the 20% chance that I didn’t actually know him, so I instead stood there, stared at him, and gave the world’s least awkward wave when he looked at me. I could practically see the gears turning in his head and the face of recognition once he remembered how we knew each other. The whole thing was incredibly weird. I don’t even see people I know in Armenia… How on earth did I manage to see someone I know in GEORGIA? He gave us a few recommendations of things to check out, and we parted ways. I think both of us were still baffled by the time we said goodbye. Talk about random.

Windows of Tbilisi

Still obsessed with the river
Etchmiadzin Cathedral

Once I recovered, we realized we were starving and went to grab lunch/rest our aching feet. It was way after normal lunchtime, so by the time we finished and hit the road again, it was starting to get dark. No matter though, we still had things to do and places to see! We were close to the former “Armenian quarter” in the city and decided to head there next. On our way, we saw a sign for Queen Darejan Palace and figured we might as well check it out. We had no clue what we were headed for, but isn’t that half the fun of exploring?

On our way there, we passed a church playing beautiful music on its speakers outside. I thought it was just some mood music, but nope! There was a service going on, and the singing alternated between the priests and a group of five women. I don’t know if it was the night, the church acoustics, the lighting in the church, or just the harmonization, but it was magical. Every time the five women sang, I got chills. I’ve never heard anything so awesome. I know that’s a bold statement, but seriously, they were incredible. I’m sure the ambiance didn’t hurt… I was getting a little lightheaded from breathing the air in there (based on the excessive incensing, I assume it was a Georgian Orthodox church).

When I was about ready to pass out from the fumes, we went outside, looked out over the city, and tried to process everything. My friend Tara said it was the most magical thing she’s ever experienced, so there’s some proof that it wasn’t just me! There was something awesome happening in that tiny church, and we got to be part of it because of a last-minute detour.

View of the city from the palace/magical church… plus a terrifying number of birds (bats??) that happened to be flying by

The palace is right next to the church and was closed, but it didn’t even matter. We peered at it over the fence and then kept moving. We decided to make a new rule for our exploring – no backtracking. That means that if you make a wrong turn, you can’t just turn around. You have to keep going and figure out a new way. If you’re trying to get somewhere on a schedule, I strongly discourage this approach. If you’re in it for the adventure, strong recommend. We wandered past the other Armenian church, Etchmiadzin (creative name, right?), and the Presidential Palace (it has a glass dome!), made a few less-than-ideal street crossings, and eventually made our way to the most futuristic-looking bridge in the city, The Bridge of Peace.

The Bridge of Peace, fully illuminated

Okay, when I said that Narikala Fortress is my favorite thing we saw in Tbilisi, I forgot about the bridge. We can let them share the #1 spot, but seriously… This. Bridge. Is. So. Cool. It’s a pedestrian bridge over the Kura River (the one that runs through the middle of Tbilisi), and I’m sure it’s one of those things that everyone complained about when it was built because it’s modern and doesn’t match anything in the city. I don’t care about any of that. All I care about is the lighting. THE LIGHTING. I was losing my mind and no one else seemed even remotely excited or impressed. Apparently, there are four different lighting programs that change hourly, and if I had been there by myself, I might have stayed for four hours to see them all. There are lights in the canopy over the bridge AND in the glass handrail panels. I’ve never seen anything like those panels before… the LEDs were in a grid between two sheets of glass and looked totally seamless. It was like magic.

The program running when we were there was mesmerizing. The canopy was lit in white and red, making the Georgian flag, and the lights brightened and dimmed in waves. That was coordinated with the handrail lights which turned on and off in waves, so when you walk across, a wave of light shoots past you and fades into the distance. It was like something out of the future. Like I said, no one else’s excitement level was even close to mine. Bummer. I need to go back so I can stare at the lights again, this time unburdened by guilt from making people wait for me while I nerd out.

Sioni Cathedral of the Dormition… quite the mouthful, huh?

Our intended destination after the bridge was a restaurant, but our “no backtracking” rule had us going in all sorts of wrong directions (also because I wasn’t trying very hard at navigating. We’ve already talked about this – going the right way takes the fun out of everything). We popped into another church that we happened to pass (because why not?) and then made a last-minute turn into the Tbilisi History Museum. You usually have to pay to go in, but there happened to be a temporary modern art exhibition opening that night. We walked right in and got to experience the joys of modern art including amusing ourselves by pretending that normal things in the room were part of the exhibition. Tara and I spent a good five minutes scrutinizing an air conditioner and were thrilled when a woman came over and gave it a second look. Otherwise, it was pretty much par for the course on modern art. Some of it looked cool, some of it looked unfinished, and most of it looked weird.

By the time we made it to the restaurant, everyone was ready for a good nap. My feet wanted to fall off. I consider that the sign of an exploration day done right, so hooray for us! I slept VERY well that night.

The ceiling in Sioni Cathedral of the Dormition
Cool part of the modern art exhibit. Don’t ask me what the point is because I don’t know. I just like how it looks.
The main atrium in the Tbilisi History Museum. I love that so many buildings actually have lighting that someone put effort into. What a concept.
Green wall! On the outside of a building! Whose colors are changing for fall! Cool.

Welcome to Tbilisi! I know it probably felt like we were never going to make it, but here we are! Despite our late-night arrival, I was determined not to waste any time! I woke up at 8 on Saturday, took a shower, got dressed, and returned to the room to find everyone else still passed out. It didn’t look like they were getting up anytime soon, so I sent them messages saying I was out for a walk and to text me when they were awake. After getting a map from the front desk, I set off with no plans beyond walking generally south where I knew I’d eventually hit a river.

First reaction: It was weird being in a foreign country that wasn’t Armenia. It made me realize how comfortable I’ve gotten here! Yes, I can’t have an in-depth conversation in Armenian (or even a non-in-depth conversation about anything besides where I’m from, what foods I ate today, or whether or not I’m married), but I can at least say enough to find my way around, say hello and thank you, and feel like I’m not a mute. I hate having to rely on other people being able to speak English because it makes me feel like a bum… I guess, though, that’s mostly because English is my first language. If my first language was Spanish and I knew English to help me when I travelled, I wouldn’t feel like I was just expecting everyone to cater to me. I would feel like we were speaking the international language of travel. But alas, English is my native language, and it doesn’t matter how many other languages I learn if I’m not in a country that speaks one of them.

I think this is an office building. I was sure it had to be something artsy to deserve such a cool facade, but I don’t think so. How about that!?

I tried to learn a few basic Georgian phrases, but I forgot how hard it is to remember things when you’re not used to the sounds. It’s almost better to not know how to say “hello” in the local language because then people know immediately that they need to speak to you in English. I guess after that you can say, “Do you speak English?” but I only like to do that if I can say it in the language. Too many words, so I focused my efforts on “thank you” and “excuse me”. It never really clicked… my default now when I hear other people speaking a non-English language is to start speaking Armenian, and I had to fight against that reflex the whole weekend.

Flea market

Anyway, my first impression of Tbilisi was that it’s not so different from Armenia. Maybe that’s because, if you remember from my Armenian Inventions post, Armenians built Tbilisi. It is true that there was a significant Armenian population in Tbilisi at some points in history (in the early 1800s the city was almost 75% Armenian), but who knows how much the Armenians can factually take credit for. I mean, practically, they’re happy to take credit for all of it. Factually, I’m not sure.

One big difference between Tbilisi and Yerevan is the river. The Kura River runs right through the center of the city, and it makes everything look a thousand times cooler. It’s also not super flat there, so the city is naturally more visually interesting. There are some skyscrapers and a few examples of weird modern architecture, making it feel more western. What’s a modern city without weird, modern buildings, right?

The Presidential Palace, complete with a glass dome, and a weird modern building that I called the macaroni building but that someone else more accurately described as a blood vessel building.
The river and the Bridge of Peace
Cliffs in the middle of a city… See how cool rivers are??
Cliffs cliffs cliffs
The coolest
Me and Tara

After wandering around for almost an hour, I made my way back to the hostel to check on my friends. They were just about ready for breakfast, and after eating, we headed back out onto the streets. Since I basically knew my way around the whole city by then, I was in charge of sightseeing destinations and navigation (though the latter is mostly because I had functional maps on my phone). We walked around a bit just to get a feel for the city before taking a cable car up Sololaki Hill to see Kartlis Deda, Narikala Fortress, and the National Botanical Garden.

Kartlis Deda is basically Georgia’s “Mother Armenia” equivalent (so… Mother Georgia). She was erected to celebrate Tbilisi’s 1500th birthday, and she has a bowl of wine in one hand for those who come as friends and a sword in the other for those who come as enemies. There’s also a fantastic view of the city from there, and after taking a million of the same picture, we headed to the fortress.

Kartlis Deda! Well, from behind. You really can’t get a good picture of her from up on the hill
The view from the top of the hill!
You can see the cable car and the park where we started our ride
The botanical garden plus a coolio building with a partial green roof/underground portion
World’s steepest steps, Noravank style

Narikala Fortress was established in the 4th century by the Persians. Since then, it was expanded and repaired in the 7th and 8th centuries, the 11th, and the 16th and 17th, all by different people… you know, whoever had control of Georgia at the moment. So basically, who knows what the heck it looked like in the 4th century, but it sure didn’t look like it does now.

The fortress is awesome!! It’s probably one of my favorite things that we saw all weekend. We should have just waited until we got there for our view of the city! I love the places where you can go and climb around on things and no one’s yelling at you or telling you not to go somewhere, and this was one of those. No entrance fee, no security people. Just the expectation that you’re not going to do anything stupid. Ah, the expectation of common sense is so rare these days.

We took our time wandering around and investigating as many nooks and crannies as we could find. There’s also a church in the center that was built in the 1990s to replace the previous one which burned down. It was beautiful on the inside (paintings galore!), but I don’t know what they were thinking when they picked the stone for the outside. It kind of looks like it was made of plywood. Ick.

Plywood Church
Narikala Fortress. Doesn’t it look like it’s just growing out of the top of the hill?
Have I mentioned that I want to live in a castle someday?
This was completely safe.
*insert emoji with heart eyes*
See the cliffs by the river?

Okay so every picture is practically the same, but the view is so cool that you feel like you need to keep taking them
Outside of St. George’s

From there, we walked down the hill with nothing more than a general direction to guide us (probably everyone else thought that I was actually leading the group based on the map or some plan, but they say ignorance is bliss, so sometimes there’s no reason to burst that bubble). By chance, we stumbled upon one of the two functional Armenian churches left in the city, St. George’s Cathedral.

There’s some disagreement about when St. George’s was built, so we’ll say it was maybe built in the 13th century and that maybe there was a 7th-century church there before that. It’s also the seat of the Georgian Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church and, which in my opinion should be the church’s biggest claim to fame, the burial location of Sayat Nova! He’s the namesake of about 50% of the streets in Armenia and was a poet and musician who, though he lived in Georgia, was Armenian. And don’t you ever forget it! HE WAS ARMENIAN.

I know, I got distracted again. Back to the church. It has a brick/stucco exterior, common to churches in Georgia, and the inside is covered in murals. It was interesting to see how different it is from churches in Armenia. Everything is way more ornate than in most churches here, and the murals are extensive. I could tell that all of us felt at ease there, maybe because we felt like we were among people with whom we could actually communicate. Oh, the luxury.

Inside St. George’s

After our brief taste of home, we were off again, trekking through the streets in a semi-planned direction. Our next stop was Juma Mosque… which may or may not have been the mosque I was aiming for, but no one has to know that. I actually don’t even know. There are two mosques on the map, and we made it to one, so that’s called a success. (I want to clarify the fact I CAN read a map. The issue, which I can refer to you my university cartography professor to hear about in more detail if you’re interested, is these darn tourist maps that try to be all artsy and end up making a map that’s barely usable because things don’t actually show in the right places. Isn’t the whole POINT of a map to show things in the right places??)

The mosque is plain looking from the outside, just a simple brick building, and we would have completely missed it if the doors weren’t open. The inside, on the other hand, is spectacular. The ceilings, the walls, the everythings were beautiful. I’m a big fan of blue, and it seems like that’s a popular color when it comes to mosque decorations. I was curious about the reason behind that, so I looked it up. It doesn’t look like there’s any connection between Islam and blue, but in the Middle East, blue represents safety and protection as well as immortality, spirituality, and heaven. Those seem like some pretty good reasons to pick blue for the primary color in a religious building! I don’t usually think much about it, but the psychology of colors is interesting. Blue does suggest a kind of peacefulness that seems appropriate in the worship context. Hm.

I didn’t take a picture of the outside of the mosque, but just picture a nondescript brick building and you’ve got it. The inside though… definitely not nondescript
The ceiling

I’m going to give you some time to ponder color psychology, mostly so that I don’t include a full novel in one post. If you’re busy, you can go do your busy person things. If not, look up the meanings of colors in different cultures. It’s interesting, I promise. If you’re into that kind of thing.

My family came to visit me!! Well, now they came and went actually. They were here for a week, and it was crazy busy and tiring, so I didn’t have a chance to write. I’ll retroactively post over the next week or so about some of the things that we did, but first, I have a life update for you!

Here are a few random, unrelated pictures… I laughed at this sign. At the bottom where it’s telling you not to litter, it says “person” under the person throwing trash into a bin and “pig” under the pig littering. In case the images weren’t enough hahahaha.

Surprise! My timeline for this trip has changed a little… I was originally thinking that I was going to be here for about four months, until sometime in October, but I’ve decided to stay until at least the end of February. I’m finishing my time with Birthright and will be volunteering directly with Aleppo-NGO.

My plan makes perfect sense to me, and my family is on board too, so I don’t think I’m crazy. I was a little worried that I was subconsciously trying to find an excuse to stay longer and put off figuring out what’s next for me, but maybe THIS is what’s supposed to be next. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced.

Here’s the backstory:

When I moved from Gyumri to Yerevan, I was placed with Aleppo-NGO, an organization that helps Syrian refugees in Armenia, as a content writer. I was excited about that. I love to write, I love to proofread, and I thought Aleppo-NGO was a super cool organization. Within about a month, they had a need for some architecture help, and it was all stuff that I could easily do for them. From there, things kind of just took off. The construction project became a priority, and they said that I could be involved for as long as I was around. Whattttt??

The sunset on my walk home from work one day!

It seems like the whole thing fell into place too perfectly for it to just be by chance. How many content writer volunteers also have a building design/construction background? I feel like I’m filling a need and am doing work that I’m uniquely suited for. Maybe it seems crazy to stay and work on this when I could go home and get a job and do similar things while also getting a paycheck, but I think it’s going to be a good experience for me. I’m getting to do all sorts of new things, and once the construction starts, I’ll be involved with that as well.

Coffee cup car. Why??

You’re probably wondering what exactly this project is… Two of the biggest challenges refugees face when coming to a new country are finding housing and employment. Aleppo-NGO has a few different programs to help with the housing challenge and works to help people find jobs. This project approaches the employment challenge from a different angle –creating jobs.

The project is a cuisine center that will mass produce Middle Eastern food for catering or grocery store distribution. It will provide jobs for Syrian refugees, especially those from underemployed groups like women and mentally and physically disabled people. Since it’s not for profit, the goal is to pay the employees higher-than-average wages and put any other profits back into the business. It’s a renovation project in an existing space, and there are a lot of things that need to be worked out to make the property function properly for this purpose.

This is the main part of the space that’s going to be renovated.

It’s a big job, and thankfully, all of the responsibility for the design isn’t falling on me. They also have a contractor and an engineer on board, and I’ve been very impressed with the two of them so far. They clearly know a lot, and I’ve gotten good vibes from them personality-wise as well. Sometimes it’s a struggle to be a woman in these contexts, but both of them have shown me nothing but respect. First of all, they both initiated handshakes with me when we met. That might seem like nothing, but here, it’s a big deal. Usually, if you’re meeting a man and you’re with men, all of the men will shake hands, and you’ll either get a head nod or completely ignored. I’ve started just sticking my hand out and leaving it there until it gets shaken, basically forcing people to acknowledge me. Second, they explain things to me, ask for my opinion, and listen when I have something to say. I think this is going to be a good learning experience for me.

Rachel (a friend who also works at Aleppo-NGO) helped me to measure all of the rooms and openings and such so that I could make an accurate drawing of the existing conditions. I couldn’t have done it without her!

Oh, and they both speak English fantastically well, so that helps too. I’m still getting good Armenian practice though. We had a meeting today, and it was at least 90% in Armenian with people cluing me in on the topic in English every once in a while. I did an okay job of following the conversation, but it’s hard when people talk quickly and are using words that I’m not familiar with (I’m sure you’ll be shocked to learn that we didn’t get to the “building design and construction” vocabulary list in Armenian class yet).

Anyway, there you have it! I’ll be in Armenia for at least four more months which means I should be fluent by the time I leave (not). I’m coming home for Thanksgiving because it’s a big event in my family and  I didn’t want to miss seeing everyone. It’s not exactly ideal timing for the project, but I have to remind myself that I’m a volunteer. I’m already staying longer to help, and I’m not getting paid. I’m allowed to take a break without feeling bad!

This was a weird week. There are a lot of things changing at once, and I’m starting to feel a little overwhelmed.

Here’s a random collection of pictures of my and my departing friends *tear*…
Shant, Carineh, and me out at dinner.

The first big change was the weather. Last weekend, the temperature was still in the low 90s. This weekend, we’ve been in the mid-60s. That. Is. Crazy. I wore shorts and a tank top at the end of last week. This week, I’m wearing pants and a fleece and am sleeping with the windows closed and all of the blankets we have piled on top of me. Okay, that’s a small exaggeration, but it’s a substantial change which I completely wasn’t ready for.

My 3D model! I promise I didn’t select those building colors… that’s what they actually look like.

Next, my job went to like a full-on architecture position this week. That’s not a bad thing, just kind of funny. To give you a little more info about the project we’re working on, one of the big challenges that refugees face is finding employment. An even bigger challenge is finding employment that pays a living wage. A lot of people here were given apartments after the fall of the Soviet Union, so they don’t have to worry about paying rent. Refugees, on the other hand, don’t have that benefit, so they need to find higher-paying jobs than most of the people living here because they have a huge extra expense each month. The national average monthly salary is a little less than $400. Rent eats up half of that, if not more, and that’s not even in a central location.

Carineh and me on top of Aragats

Aleppo-NGO’s plan is to make cuisine center that manufactures frozen Middle Eastern food for sale in grocery stores plus has a little dine-in/carry out component. It will employ refugees from Syria, train them to work in the service industry here and develop management skills, and pay them wages that are higher than the market rate. From there, people can find other jobs, start their own businesses, etc, but it’s a way for them to get some experience and management training and get used to the logistics of running a business in Armenia.

They have the property, and now they’re fundraising and applying for different grants to pay for the construction and furnishing costs. I spent the first half of the week developing some possible floor plans for the report and the second half creating some graphics using the 3D model I started last week. It’s been fun to get to do something different and feel like I’m contributing in a way that is really taking advantage of my skills. Larkitect is taking the world by storm.

Finally, this is the last week that a lot of my friends are going to be here. We had a pretty solid crew of 5 of us who met in Gyumri and moved to Yerevan basically at the same time: Shant, Carineh, Gagik, Talene, and me. Shant has been gone for a couple weeks now, Carineh just left this morning, Gagik was supposed to leave last Friday night, and Talene will be in Armenia for a couple more weeks but is going to be sightseeing with her cousin which means she’s basically gone. The whole “Gagik was supposed to leave” thing is because he decided to change his ticket and stay another month! So that’s something at least. It’s still going to be pretty rough without the others though. My other good friend, Arin, leaves on Tuesday. That means I’ve been forced to try to branch out and make more friends. Ugh. It’s overwhelming because there are so many volunteers, and how do you even start going through 100 people to find the ones you get along with?

Talene and me enjoying each other’s company in Halidzor on the way to Tatev Monastery

I told everyone that they’re all required to find me one replacement friend before they leave. That’s only fair, right? They came through pretty well actually. I’ve met some people in the last couple of weeks who seem cool, so now I just need to do the whole “beginning of friendship effort” thing. Exhausting.

I think I’m going to be okay, though. Plus, it’s only three more weeks until my family comes to visit me!!! Yup, that’s right! My parents and my brother are coming for about 8 days at the end of October, and I’m super excited about it. We’re going to have so much fun!