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Land of Monks and Winemakers

Not all smooth sailing in Telavi

sunny 90 °F

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The first day in Telavi - Georgia's "wine country" - had not exactly gone smooth. Our hotel did not have our reservation. All the rooms were taken by a Bollywood production that is filming here for a month. Luckily, the desk manager found us a relatively comparable room in a brand new hotel. The main sight we wanted to see today, Batonistsikhe Castle, was closed for renovation. In fact, the whole town is undergoing some serious renovation. All the main streets are torn up, and construction vehicles rumble past all day, blanketing you with dust and diesel smoke. Nevertheless, we poked around town and saw a few things of interest.

The next morning, though, was the heart of our Telavi side trip. We hired a cab (arranged by the same helpful desk manager) to visit six of the region's top sights - monasteries, nunneries, churches and castles. Our driver showed up promptly and we were underway on a warm, sunny day. Our first stop was at a pair of sights, Old and New Shaumta. Old Shaumta is a trio of churches, the oldest from the 400s A.D. All three were of cream colored stone, and relatively small. They were tucked away in a secluded forest and were part of a monastery at one point. Other than one other carload of tourists, we were the only visitors. That same carload was on the same itinerary, and we would bump into them at every stop along the way.

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Down the road was the nunnery, New Shaumta. It was kind of cool, I had to ring this surprisingly loud bell to get one of the nuns to let us through the gate. As we entered the 16th century chapel I heard my two least favorite words when I'm traveling, "No photographs." the reason was the gorgeous frescos covering every foot of the walls and ceiling. The deep blue color and the figures were weathered, but easy to make out. I recognized Gregory the Illuminator, the saint who brought Christianity to the area. Other than the chapel, pretty much the entire place is off limits to visitors. Part of it, I'm sure, is for the privacy of the nuns. Another part was the - you guessed it - reconstruction going on at the site.

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From there, we made our way to my favorite monastery of the day: Ikalto. It was founded in the 500s A.D. by Syrian monks who traveled to Georgia. Tradition has it that they are buried in the main church. The monastery functioned as a university for centuries in Georgia. The ruins of the Academy area dark gray stone, which contrasts with the apricot colored church walls. A wine press and huge, clay amphorae used to store wine are lined up not far from the church. Georgia is known for its wines, and this area has been the heart its wine production since the beginning. All around the monastery complex are one of my favorite trees - tall, thin cypress furs. I love how they look and give any place a classical, Mediterranean feel.

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Our fourth stop was probably the most stunning building I'd seen in Georgia: Alaverdi Cathedral. It is surrounded by medieval stone walls and squat towers. The inside is massive, with huge, soaring ceilings. Traces of frescoes cover nearly the entire inside, some darker and easier to see, others a faint whisper of color on the whitish-gray stone.
This was the type of cathedral that makes your next sore, as you wander around staring upwards at the arches, domes, and decorated stonework. Some of the frescos showed influence from Islamic art, being graceful, geometric patterns in contrasting colors. I overheard a guide pointing Persian style arches to another group. Of course, one bad thing about Alaverdi Cathedral is its "no photography" rule once inside the walls. Rebel that I can be, I did sneak in a picture or two - but not inside. A monk and older lady kept a vigilant eye on us as we wandered around.

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Gremi Castle was on our next and probably most fun stop. You were free to wander around the red brick castle to your heart's content. We climbed towers, explored subterranean passages, admired the view of the countryside, and checked out the interior museum. The castle has one lofty tower and a tall church steeple to give it a two pronged silhouette. As you gazed out over the farmlands and forest surrounding the castle, you could see medieval remnants of churches and watchtowers poking up out of the trees on all sides. All that was missing were trumpet blasts and a column of armored knights clip-clopping into the courtyard.

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We finished off the day with Nekresi Monastery, perched high atop a forest ridge on the edge of the hills surrounding the Telavi valley. You can see it from the distance as a stab of orange on the rolling green hills. It was the only hilltop monastery of the day, so of course, we had to milk that for what it's worth! Our driver dropped us off at the bottom of the hill and pointed out the gate to go through for our climb to the top. It was no dirt pathway, though, but instead a smooth, cobbled stone driveway. We wondered who the lucky ones were that got to drive up. Although it was just under a mile to the monastery, it was a steep ascent, the switchbacks often at staircase height. After we'd gone a ways, a vanload of people chugged by us. The same van passed us going downhill a short time later. Drenched with sweat, we continued to climb, searching out every shady patch of road no matter how small. When the van passed us going uphill, again, we knew we'd missed something. Yes, there were van rides to the top! No one told us, and we didn't see any signs of them when we began our ascent of Everest.

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Eventually, we arrived at the blessed spot...doubly so for us! The collection of stone buildings are mainly from the 800-900s A.D. It was very peaceful there, with gentle breezes sighing through the trees. Far below, farmlands were laid out in patterns of yellow, light and darker green. We explored the buildings, some of which are used for religious art galleries, nowadays. It was a nice way to wrap up the day's sightseeing. The combination of rich, decorated stonework, dark chapels smelling of candle smoke, and a gorgeous panorama of the Telavi valley, seemed to sum up the day. That, and missing the van ride up held true with out not exactly smooth visit to Georgia's wine and monastery country!

Posted by world_wide_mike 11:49 Archived in Georgia Tagged church country castle wine monastery georgia telavi gremi shaumta ikalto alaverdi nekresi Comments (0)

One for the History Books

7th grade Social Studies in a Nutshell

sunny 78 °F

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One of the reasons I came to Cyprus was the wealth of historical sights from my favorite periods of history. The Egyptians were there, the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, crusaders, and Arabs and Turks. Essentially, Cyprus is my 7th grade Social studies curriculum in a tiny, island nutshell. Today's itinerary would bear that out. We would begin with a Crusader castle, move on to Greek and Roman ruins, drop back 6,000 years to the Stone Age, and then finish with the Middle Ages.

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Although it was my turn to drive, we decided to not mess with success and keep the Jenny Driver, Mike Navigator, tandem. It would work to perfection. We were never lost, and even navigated our way through the crowded, one-way streets of Larnaca flawlessly. We started with a couple sights in the area of our base of Limassol. First up was Kolossi, the most intact Crusader fort in Cyprus. When I travel, I usually try to get an early start. I'm not talking crack of dawn, but if I'm not on the road by the 9 o'clock hour, I'm disappointed. My usual payoff - and it held true today - is you avoid the crowds. Most of the tour bus crowd lingers over breakfast and coffee and you can at least beat them to your first destination.

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And so it was. Jenny and I had the castle to ourselves for the first half hour or so. Although there are no furnishings or decorations in the rooms themselves, it was easy to populate them in our mind with torches, tables full of ale and food, and raucous knights. The castle initially was built by the crusaders who accompanied Guy of Lusignan, who took control of the island in 1194 A.D. Later it was passed into the hands of both the Knights of St. John (also known as the Hospitallers), and the famous -- or infamous -- Templars. When that order was suppressed by the Pope, the castle went back into the hands of the Hospitallers. From there, it was seized by the Italians and finally the Turks. The spiral stone staircases, echoing halls, and arrow slits along the walls transported you back mentally to the medieval world. It was cool to pace slowly around the amber-colored stone rooms and soak up the atmosphere.

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From there, we drove to the day's highlight: the Graeco-Roman ruins of Kourion. This site sprawls along the gorgeous deep blue Mediterranean coast, within sight of the famous Rocks of Aphrodite from our first day of sightseeing. They have tumbled down homes, temples, churches, and public buildings from the Greeks, Romans, and early Christians of the Dark Ages. There are several huge villas that have been excavated to uncover not only the bases of the walls, but extensive mosaic floors. A number of these are covered by modern wooden roofs with boardwalks suspended overhead for visitors to view the protected floors and ruins. You can't accuse Kourion of being overly reconstructed (except for maybe the semicircular stone theater). It has been made VERY accessible to the visitor, though. Clearly defined gravel paths direct you and signs inform you of what you are looking at. And though the sun beat down on us making it a hot, hour-long walk through the ruins, we were never left scratching our head or mystified at what we were visiting.

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The Kourion ruins are fairly spread out, too. It takes awhile to walk their extent, which generally mean the package tours disgorging from their tour buses can't visit all of the site. For Kourion, that meant we had to put up with the 50-strong German tour group only at the theater. So, for most of our wanderings at the site, we encountered only a couple of others here and there. Jenny and are we're amused by the American guy with his svelte, blonde trophy wife who insisted on getting her picture taken posing in front of every scenic view. All in all, though, our visit to Kourion was awesome, and we had much of it to enjoy by ourselves.

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After filling up our rental car with gas (Yikes...55 Euros! About $70...), we headed east on the interstate. We pulled off at Choirokoitia, which was definitely off the beaten tourist track. This hilltop Stone Age settlement began in 6500 B.C., and is still being excavated. The dwellings are grouped in clusters of four tiny, round, stone huts. One was used by a family group for sleeping, another for cooking, and yet another for grinding grain, and so on. The scientists have built a cluster of replicas at the beginning of the site, and you see the stone remains of the originals when you climb the steep hill to the community's defensible site. It was definitely not as exciting as Kourion or the castle of Kolossi, but still fascinating for a history buff.

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Next, we drove into downtown Larnaca, and much to my amazement, navigated the one-way streets and divided roads to our destination without hitch. We parked the car and walked through Larnaca, as most of its sites are not far apart. First, we visited the church of St. Lazarus...yes, the same one from the Bible miracle, "Lazarus, come forth!" The story goes that Lazarus moved to Cyprus and preached Jesus' teachings there. In the Middle Ages, his tomb, inscribed "Lazarus, dead 4 days and friend of Jesus" was found beneath the church dedicated to his name. The interior is a really cool melding of the gold-encrusted, elaborately decorated Byzantine style and the soaring stone Frankish or Gothic styles. Icons bedeck every open space in the church, many with votive candles glowing beneath them or enclosed within polished silver frames. Candle light gleams from gold and silver everywhere you look. You can duck down into the crypt and view the tomb of Lazarus. You could even look at his bones, partially enclosed in a carved silver box which is taken out and paraded through Larnaca's streets during festivals. And most miraculous of all (okay, and just a t-a-d sarcastically), photography was not prohibited...at least not that I could see!

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Just a short walk away was the Larnaca Medieval Fort and "Museum". I put museum in quotes because that was the weakest attempt at a medieval museum I've seen in 80 countries. More than 3/4's of the displays were grainy black and white photographs -- many of places most tourists would visit during their stay on the island. There was one small glass case of medieval weapons (all from what *I* would term the Renaissance), and a couple cases of pottery cups (wow...how exciting). The fort was okay, though. The best part was its position right on the beach in the center of town. Looking over its walls, you see the waves breaking on the shore. It didn't come near capturing Kolossi's mystique, though.

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Next, Jenny wanted to kick back and gaze out at the Mediterranean. So, we grabbed a couple Strongbow English ciders and sat on a bench and relaxed. We laughed at a dog and his master romping on the beach, and people watched. As we whiled away the time, it ticked steadily away. By the time we got in motion again, every place we wanted to visit was closed. It had been a long, sun-drenched day, though. So, we were content to make our way back to the car and begin the drive home. We had one more full day of sightseeing left, and there was nothing wrong with being rested up for it! Plus, we found a great pub to sit in, enjoy some beverages, and check out the photos we'd taken. Day 3 in Cyprus was one for the history books, and after all, that was why I was here...!

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Here is me posing in front of ancient Cyprus' most famous philosopher, Zenon of Kition, who invented the idea of Stoicism. Do I look stoic enough?

For more photos, check out my Cyprus Photobucket site: http://s721.photobucket.com/user/mikedemana/library/Cyprus%202014?sort=3&page=1

Posted by world_wide_mike 12:00 Archived in Cyprus Tagged ruins church roman greek cyprus limassol larnaca lazarus kolossi kourion choirokoitia Comments (1)

Granada's Sights -- Catch Them Before it's too late!

Churches, Pre-Columban History, and Las Isletas

sunny 95 °F

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Granada's cathedral with Volcan Mombacho in the background

We were arriving late into Managua, Nicaragua - our plane was due to land just after midnight. Delays in our connecting city meant we actually showed up about an hour later than that. Thankfully, our hotel driver was still there waiting. We were staying in the nearby city of Granada, about 50 minutes away. Managua simply didn't seem interesting enough, while there were tons of things to do near Granada. It was after 2 am when we went to bed, but surprisingly, we were both ready to get moving shortly after 8 am.

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Antiguo Convento San Francisco in Granada, Nicaragua

The hotel breakfast was great with lots if fresh, tropical fruit. We talked to the owner and he had lots of suggestions for how to start off our day. They were also willing to set up excursions to the places we wanted to visit during our stay. We began by walking 5 blocks to the Antiguo Convento San Francisco. First built in 1529, then destroyed by English pirate Henry Morgan 150 years later (can you say, "Aaaar!"), the building serves as both a church and a museum. And since today was Palm Sunday, there was a service going on in the church with lots if singing. It provided an atmospheric backdrop as we checked out the museum and the former convent grounds. My favorite part was the pre-Columban statues lined up on two sides of one open air room. Most were from the 1300-1500s. You could see the Mayan and Aztec influence in what was depicted, what the statues were carved wearing, and so on. Most statues were of gods or goddesses from the rich Central American mythology. You saw manlike beings carved with crocodile, jaguar, and eagle features. There was also nice displays of early Nicaraguan pottery. Once again, you saw the obvious Mexican influence.

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Two rows of almost 1,000 year old statues show major influence on Nicaragua's indigenous inhabitants by the Maya and Aztec

From there, we took our hotel owner's suggestion and checked out the private, "Mi Museo," which was the collection of an obviously very wealthy and very enthusiastic aficionado of early historic relics of Nicaragua. Most of it was pottery, each piece labelled in both English and Spanish. My favorites were the pots shaped like animals with faces, feet, and richly painted. I glimpsed the back, storage rooms where 4-5 times what is on display sits categorized inside plastic tubs, each labelled appropriately. What's more, the museum is free and tipping is expressly NOT allowed. Sadly, the Danish gentleman who put the collection together died in 2012. His gift lingers on, though.

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Examples of of the early Nicaraguan pottery at Mi Museo, a free and interesting museum in Granada

From there, we decided to check out a couple more of Granada's churches. Unfortunately, we were hitting them near the noon closing time. So, we were unable to climb the bell tower of Iglesia La Merced, built in 1534 and considered the country's most beautiful church. So, instead of taking in a panorama of the city, we walked around the locked exterior and took photos of its baroque decoration. It is a beautiful church, even though the electrical wires running along the street made photographing it difficult!

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Dome and statue that are part of Iglesia La Merced, said to be Nicaragua's most beautiful church

Lightning struck a second time as Xalteva Church was also closed. Along with La Merced, it is a favorite of the wealthier descendants of the Spanish conquistadors and colonists. Its bright yellow exterior and soaring towers made it a pretty sight -- especially from the tiny park across the street.

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Xalteva Church, seen from the tiny park across the street in Granada, Naicaragua

We continued along the road hoping that Forteleza La Polvora would be open. It also boasted views of Granada from its towers. Sadly, it also was closed. I vaguely considered doing an Indiana Jones to get inside if I found a way through or over its walls. But there was a policeman on duty at the gate who (I believe) said it was closed for remodeling. Frustrating. It was after noon and I could tell the temperature was well into the 90s, with a bright sun blistering down on us. It was definitely time to head back to the hotel to rest and recover. Besides, we wanted to arrange our afternoon excursion with the desk before it got too late.

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The closed towers of Fortaleza La Polvora

We ended up picking a boat ride to the Las Isletas, a cluster of more than 300 islands that are remnants of the eruption of Volcan Mombacho, which looms over Granada and Lake Nicaragua. The islands are little patches of jungle in the calm, vegetation-choked water. Egrets, cormorants, ibis,and even eagles prowl its waters. They are nearly outnumbered, though, by the boats chugging through the channels between the islands. The Las Isletas day trip is a popular day trip for visitors and locals alike. A big part if the tour is pointing out which wealthy Nicaraguan family owns which upscale weekend home you could glimpse through the trees. For Sale signs advertised others available to be snapped up by the elite and turned into a place to entertain friends or get away for it all. One of my favorite parts was the anti-pirate fortification on San Pablo island. The tiny, two story brick and stone structure still sported a couple relic cannons and overlooked the route pirates would need to take to attack Granada.

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The tiny fort on San Pablo island in Las Isletas -- a cluster of 354 islands in Lake Nicaragua

An interesting aspect of the raids English pirates would make on Grenada is that they had to sail for many miles up the River San Juan River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean, to reach their target. Coincidentally, a new attack on Nicaragua is planned by a foreign "partner" using the same Río San Juan. A Chinese company has essentially bribed the Nicaraguan government into letting them dig a canal from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. The first part will dredge the Río San Juan and destroy the habitat and two national forests to reach Lake Nicaragua. The passage of ocean going container ships will likely do zilch to help the ordinary people of Nicaragua. Only the government and elite will have a chance to snatch a piece of this destructive fortune cookie. All the animals, fish, and subsistence fishermen will have their lifestyles destroyed so that more inferior quality, "Made in China" merchandise can more quickly insinuate itself across the world. Yay! So, I guess I'm glad I am getting a chance to see Nicaragua's natural wonders before they are destroyed by the impersonal and ever-grasping hands of progress.

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Tiny fishing vessels and scenes of aquatic beauty may go away and be replaced by ocean-going container ships, if a Chinese scheme to build a canal in Nicaragua happens

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Spider monkeys like this one stand to lose their habitat if "progress" -- Chinese-style -- has its way...

Posted by world_wide_mike 20:54 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged church san francisco granada las la nicaragua iglesia merced convento xalteva isletas Comments (0)

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