Early in November I spent 3 days in the Spanish Basque country and it turned out to be a really good surprise!
When I decided to head out to Bilbao for a long weekend, I must admit I didn’t have great expectations. I imagined Bilbao as a small industrial town, in a remote Spanish region sadly noted by the deeds of its pro-independence hardliners. To me, Bilbao was synonymous with Guggenheim Museum and the Basque Country was synonymous with ETA conflict.
I was so wrong!
My bad for being such an ignorant! The Basque country is one of Spain’s hidden gems.
Times are hard. And they are getting harder. The ongoing changes affect us all and we cannot continue to turn a blind eye.
Last March, when I went to Prague, I took time to visit the Terezín Concentration Camp (also know as Theresienstadt ghetto), because I believe that travelling is not just about having a blast, but it is also about learning, remembering and honoring the past.
Sure, it is not the most enjoyable way to spend the day. And I understand (and respect) that many of you do not want to include such a gloomy place in your travel plans. For those who think that way, please skip this post.
This post is for those who think that travelling is, above all, a learning experience, focused on personal growth, and are not afraid of growing pains. If you’re such a person, keep on reading.
You know a book will stay with you forever when you realize it changed your point of view about something. That’s what Tiziano Terzani’s “A Fortune-Teller Told Me” did to me.
Tiziano Terzani was an Italian journalist and writer, born in Florence in 1938. He died of cancer in 2004, after a life long search and learning experience of the vast and mystic Asian continent. He worked and lived in several Asian cities, such as Beijing, Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangkok and New Delhi.
Although he denied being a believer of New Age philosophy, he was always in touch with his spiritual side. Thus, he continuously searched to perfect it. He was, hence, drawn to the study of Asiatic religions and philosophies.
“A fortune-teller told me” is the tale of his journeys through Asia, during 1993. This was a very special year for Tiziano. Almost 20 years before, a fortune-teller in Hong Kong had told him he should not travel by plane in the year of 1993. If he did, his life would be in danger.
Tbilisi is a unique place. East meets West. But there’s so much more to it than that! Tbilisi has so much to offer. It is a beautiful little city, which is neither European, nor Asian, neither completely westernized, nor distinctly orientalized. Most of all, it’s my favorite place to wonder off, to just walk the streets and discover every little alley.
There was always something unexpected. All I had to do was pay attention and look around. A stained-glass window on a second floor, a magnificent wrought iron gate, a lively patio, with children playing and clothes hanging out to dry. Or an old church, simple architecture on the outside, but lavishly decorated on the inside. Or even a luxury car parked outsider a crumbling building.
And the smell of food, and that strange language all around.
It truly feels like a place out of time, half way between the real world and a fantasy land.
Before my last visit to London I had never heard of the Dennis Severs’ House.
I stumbled upon this peculiar place while researching for off the beaten path London sights.
SETTING THE ATMOSPHERE
I’d been to London a few times and had already checked the must-dos and must-visit places. I wanted to discover a different London. My search produced some interesting results and I ended up taking a chance on the Dennis Severs’ House.
Its premise sounded quite intriguing. According to the Dennis Severs’ House’s site (you can find it here), it is “more than just a time capsule. It is both a breathtaking and an intimate portrait of the lives of a family of Huguenot silk-weavers from 1724 to the dawn of the 20th Century. As you follow their fortunes through the generations, the sights, smells and sounds of the house take you into their lives.”
After a couple of days in Tbilisi (I will tell you all about this in a later post) and two awesome tours, I felt it was time to visit Georgia’s famous vineyards in the Kakheti region.
The country’s first wine-producing region is the Kakheti. The lovely Alazani valley stretches east of Tbilisi, surrounded by high mountains. It has a subtropical micro-climate, great soils and plenty of water. Overall great conditions to produce the best grapes and, consequently, great wines.
Plus, it provides beautiful landscapes for a one day tour.
The day after my soul search in the Greater Caucasus, I went south, to the Lesser Caucasus, heading for the cave city of Vardzia.
From the Greater to the Lesser Caucasus there is more than a change in scenery. There is a change in the overall mood. The green Greater Caucasus is in total contrast with the smaller mountains of the Lesser Caucasus, with its desert-like hills. If the first elevates the spirit, the second reminds us of the harsh reality of those who lived (and still live) there.
Georgia has a long history of conflicts. Surrounded by three big empires, at least two of them were always at the door, trying to force its way in: the Persian and the Ottoman empires.
Pushing its way from the south, the Ottoman empire launched countless attacks on Georgia, throughout History. But, mostly thanks to its geography, Georgia kept pushing them back.
One of the most important places of resistance was the cave city of Vardzia. An amazing place, excavated in the mountain rock. In its Golden Age it housed about 50.000 people, in dwellings arranged over 19 tiers, in its highest part.
The sulfur baths are one of Tbilisi’s most unique experiences. One that you definitely shouldn’t miss.
It’s not a trip to the spa. Far from it. But it will cleanse your tired body (and, believe me, when the masseuse starts scrubbing, you’ll really feel dirty!) and relax your wandering spirit.
I did some on-line reading about the sulfur baths, before I went to Tbilisi. And I was simultaneously curious and a bit concerned, to be honest. But all the accounts I read agreed on one point: if you don’t feel comfortable with the public baths, go for a private room. It’s more expensive, but it will assure you total privacy.
And yes, you understood correctly: the traditional baths are a public experience, men and women in separate rooms, and you’re expected to go in buck naked.
And then, there’s that peculiar and not exactly enjoyable sulfur smell.
Well, I was there in Tbilisi. And it was part of the experience. How could I miss it?
On my last day in Tbilisi I finally gathered all my courage and went for it.
My first experience in the Caucasus was a one day trip on the Georgian Military Highway, all the way up to the village of Kazbegi.
I wanted to see the mountains. This is not a difficult task, anywhere in Georgia. Even in Tbilisi, all you have to do is go up to the Narikala fortress and you’ll have an impressive view of the mountains surrounding the city.
But I wanted to see the Greater Caucasus, go up a mountain and (almost) touch the sky.
Georgian territory includes the southern part of the Greater Caucasus range, in the north of the country, and part of the Lesser Caucasus (or Transcaucasus) in the center and south of Georgia.
Also, the very name Caucasus evokes centuries of poetry and mysticism.