A Travellerspoint blog

September 2019

Day thirty-one - Gyumri or bust

Thursday 26 September 2019

overcast 16 °C

Gyumri

Basically, the day’s goal was about travelling non-stop to Gyumri. Although the guesthouse was cold and I didn’t have the best sleep, Zina produced the best breakfast I’ve had since travelling. She not only provided the usual offerings, but made cheese pastries similar to borek and a really crispy type of omelette. Karen doesn’t seem to be a big eater and I gamely tucked in but couldn’t really do the feast justice. Then it was time to be on our way. Zina poured all the cob nuts that hadn’t been eaten into my bag, which was lovely but without a nutcracker, they aren’t going to be eaten for a while.

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The Earthquake of 1988

The road to Gyumri took us through Vanadzor, a town of abandoned Soviet era industrial buildings. Vanadzor is the gateway to the Debed Canyon which is probably the most interesting part of the whole country. I’ve been twice before but would definitely revisit in a future. We also skirted Spitak a town that was completely destroyed by the earthquake of 1988 and was then built slightly further away from the original site. 4,000 of its inhabitants were killed and 25,000 died in total although some claim that this is an under-estimation. There is also a theory that it was not a natural event but a result of military operations, exploding munitions underground. Before arriving into Gyumri there is a huge cemetery on the hillside where many of the dead are buried. For survivors, they had no shelter in the coldest part of the year. Apparently, even to this day some people are living in makeshift metal shelters, waiting to be rehoused.

Gyumri - known as Leninakan in Soviet time, was also badly hit. Evidence of the devastation could still be seen on my last visit, but slowly the town is being rebuilt or restored. The disaster was about the first time that the soviet government asked for international agencies to help.

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Villa Kars

I hoped my hotel would be better than the last guesthouse in terms of comfort. Last time I stayed at Berlin Art Hotel which is pretty classy. Villa Kara is in the Centre of town, about three minutes walk from the main square. It’s very quaint with rooms off a pretty courtyard. My room was comfortable, and pleasant, with a kettle and even better, a radiator in the bathroom. Although warm in the day, the evenings are cool.

I had a walk around to get my bearings. The main square has a cathedral being restored after it was destroyed by the earthquake, City Hall and a large theatre. Squares tend to be used as car parks which is a shame as a green space would be so much nicer, although there are lots of parks in and around the town. There is one park which I think was open when I last came. It’s a soviet era children’s park on Sayat-Nova Street, now abandoned. There was something quite eerie about it.

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Healthy eating at Herbs and Honey

I googled recommended cafes and found that I was next to one of them - Herbs and honey. Another healthy eating cafe with a good menu especially as a respite from carb overload. I had a healthy stir fry followed by herb tea that was purported to ‘freshen’ me up. I sent photos to the family thinking I was the first Greig to visit only to discover that my brother and niece had already been there earlier in the year.

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At a loose end

I was starting to wonder why my itinerary included Gyumri. It’s quite attractive with houses built of dark stone and it has a busy market but there wasn’t much else to do there so I visited the Aslamazyan sisters’ museum. They were painters who were heavily influenced by their exotic travels and who also produced ceramics. I thought the plates were beautiful especially the vibrant choice of colours. The museum offers ceramics master-classes and as I came in I saw someone working on a potter’s wheel.

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Yet another meal

For my evening meal I decided to go for Syrian again. The restaurant Nor Aleppo was just off Ankakhutyan Square at the top of Sayat-Nova Nova. Although cooler it’s nice to have an evening stroll with an extra layer for warmth. The food was really good but I have no idea how they thought I could eat four Syrian breads. Portions are not cut down to size for solo diners. I had cheese borek, fattoush and mutabal (more like the baba ganoush I make at home). I also had a Gyumri beer but no room for dessert.

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The walk back was fine and as I passed the rather spooky abandoned soviet era park in the dark it struck me that it would make a great setting for a horror movie. Generally, the streets are busy in the evening and so I’ve never felt unsafe walking late at night because there are so many people around, particularly families.

When I got back to the hotel I realised I had no idea when and where breakfast was served. I’ve found that in general, hotels and guest houses don’t furnish you with any basic, useful information when you arrive. We were leaving earlier than usual the next day at 9am so needed to make sure I breakfasted in time whilst avoiding the large groups who tend to breakfast early.

Posted by Cath_Greig 07:35 Archived in Armenia Tagged museum syrian earthquake gyumri herbs_and_honey nor_aleppo Comments (0)

Day thirty - shivering in Dilijian

Wednesday 25 September 2019

semi-overcast 16 °C

Perfect breakfast - shame about the coffee

It was a lovely start to the day despite the chill in the air. We were still quite high up at around 1,900 m above sea level. Much higher than Snowdon in Wales. In the Caucasus, you might think you are at a low altitude because you are surrounded by high mountains but it’s all a matter of relativity! I find it hard to judge. The guest house produced a good breakfast with the usual Armenian offerings: bread, cheese, fruit, sour cream, preserves. The only downside - and this is across the board at nearly everywhere I’ve stayed - hot water with instant coffee and tea bags. I’m surprised the french put up with it. Anyway, I asked whether I could have an Armenian coffee and then everyone wanted one! However, it wasn’t quite as strong as I like it so planned to have another one later in the day. As the UK has become more interested in different types of coffee and brewing, places like Armenia and Georgia seem to have adopted instant which is the devil’s work in my opinion.

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Lake Sevan

Our final destination of the day was Dilijian, stopping at Noraduz cemetery and Sevanank Monastery en route. The road skirts Lake Sevan so that water is in sight for most of the way. The changes in colour depends on the light and weather. Today it was almost a jade colour with azure ripples. The lake is one of the largest high altitude freshwater lakes in the world. It covers 940 sq km and is 80 km long. It used to be 20 m higher level than it is now and would be a lot smaller if Stalin had managed to get his way.

The lake has a healthy freshwater fish population. As you drive along, people stand with their arms outstretched indicating that they have massive fish for sale, whilst in reality they are just average dimensions.

Khachkars at Noraduz

Noraduz cemetery is full of hundreds of carved memorial stones. Some are upright carved with crosses whilst others are at a low level depicting more day to day life and objects. The latter are my favourite ones but as many are very old dating back to medieval times, they aren’t very distinct and quite hard to photograph. The old ladies who had tried to sell socks to us on previous visits seem to have retired now to sit gossiping among the stones whilst a younger generation of women ply their trade.

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Sevanank Monastery

Further along the lake is Sevanank Monastery which used to be completely surrounded by water when the lake was at it’s original higher level. Like everywhere else, the site is far more touristy. The growth in travel companies ferrying bus loads of people to the different places has changed the character of each place. It’s great that Armenia is attracting international tourists but I think there are downsides to it as it can be quite overwhelming.

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As I hadn’t had my recommended daily dose of coffee yet, I stopped at the Ashot Yerkat restaurant for coffee and baklava.

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From one terrain to another

This was the first time that I’d travelled to Dilijian from Sevan, each time I’ve done it the other way round. There’s a tunnel that acts almost like a portal. On the Sevan side there are no trees but on the other side of the tunnel it’s a lush, forested area. I think the difference is more dramatic going from Dilijian to Sevan. Once through the tunnel the road winds down many hair pin bends with people selling corn on the cob at nearly every bend. Apparently, unlike other foodstuffs sold at the roadside, corn isn’t grown locally.

Old Dilijian

We stopped so that I could get lunch in Old Dilijian. They have restored several of the old buildings which now house artists and small shops. There was a group of English people on a tour wandering about so I had a chat with them, having not heard anyone speak English for weeks. One of the guys was having a right old moan. The women I was chatting to told me that he was a total misery guts. I suppose there’s always going to be one on every tour. They were jealous that I was a solo traveller.

I went to the restaurant of the nearby Tufenkian Hotel and had a very simple lentil kofta which was a welcome change from carb overload. All the other tables were full of tour groups. One particular group was very loud - but it wasn’t the tourists, it was the guides. It’s almost as if they’ve forgotten that they aren’t the only people in the restaurant.

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A chilly night

Each time I’ve stayed before it’s been at Daravand guest house overseen by the larger than life, Rasmik. However, I was booked into another guesthouse at the complete opposite end of Dilijian and quite far from the centre. As there wasn’t really anywhere to go I was happy to have a night in. Although the host, Zina, was lovely, plying me with food and drink, it wasn’t a particularly comfortable place and it got very cold in the night. There was no heating and my room was ar ground level with doors opening onto the garden. It almost felt like camping. A far cry from Rasmik’s place which is both warm and comfortable.

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Posted by Cath_Greig 03:09 Archived in Armenia Tagged lakes breakfast sevan dilijian noraduz Comments (0)

Day twenty-nine - back into Armenia

Tuesday 24 September 2019

sunny 23 °C

Monastery overload

Our itinerary for the day included visits to two monasteries - Dadivank and Gandzasar but before first we stopped at the statues that have become the symbols of the region Papik Tatik - named ‘We are our mountains’. Reading the information it seems to be a celebration of elders and particularly centenarians of which there are a high proportion in Artsakh, apparently

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Gandzasar was our first stop - it’s near a really eccentric village called Vank. Apparently, Levon, who was born in the village, but is now based in Russia (and obviously very rich) has been a patron of the town and has managed to create a very bizarre place. He is obsessed by lions - I think that’s what Levon means - from the statues as you enter the town, the yellow and green colours of the school and sports ground to the roaring giant lion’s head, built into the rock. There are also very kitsch hotels - one is shaped like a boat - personally, I love it and if I ever come back, I want to stay there to appreciate the full experience.

The monastery is interesting but as I’d seen it before, I just had a quick walk around before going to the Matenadaran - the repository of manuscripts and books from the region. I had a guide to show me around. Some of the earliest manuscripts were the most beautiful and especially colourful. It really highlighted how the introduction of printing made everything much duller aesthetically but more practical, for obvious reasons.

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Next stop was Dadivank - this used to be a tricky place to get to as the road was unmetalled and best reached using a 4x4 but it’s been improved greatly like many of the other roads going to religious and historical sites. It’s yet another beautiful building in a beautiful setting but having been to all of them before, I was beginning to tire of monasteries! They were cooking Jengylov hats by the church so bought one for lunch. Apparently Karen has never eaten one, which amazes me. The french group were also at the site and were also having them for their lunch. Their guide couldn’t persuade Karen to try them either.

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Terrifying tunnel

From there we were meant to go to the hot springs. We went over a dodgy bridge that looked like it might collapse any minute and then an even more terrifying tunnel with no lights and no room to pass an oncoming car. The road was unmetalled and as there was a distance of about ten miles to go, which we would have to do at a snail’s pace, I decided that this could be better left for another visit and with a 4 x 4. The gorge we travelled through on our way to the border was pretty amazing though. Towering mountains of rock. So imposing it made me feel very small in comparison.

We then started to head back to Armenia via the check point which is on the road to Vardenis on the other side of the border. Going through the border was quick. All they needed was a document that Karen had to carry while we were in

On the road we encountered what I can only describe as Armenia’s dirty secret - huge piles of mining spoil. I have to say it was quite horrific as it just sits there like something from an alien landscape.

Soon after going through Vardenis we started to skirt Lake Sevan, the largest lake in the Caucasus and at 1900m above sea level, one of the largest high altitude, freshwater lakes in the world. When I’ve been before, we’ve approached it from Dilijan. This time, I was going to do it the other way round. I was starting to feel very tired. It’s amazing how travel - even when you are a passenger, is very tiring. Couldn’t wait to get to the guesthouse, Gites au moulin in Nerkin Getashen to have a snooze.

Eco guest house

When we arrived it took a while to get through the gate as no-one seemed to be around. The sons of the owners had been out but when they strolled back they let us in and showed us to our rooms. The guesthouse is simply but tastefully decorated with natural products as far as possible. I had a balcony overlooking their cottage garden with a flour mill and mill stream. I thought that instead of sleeping, I’d have wander and the younger son joined me. Although he can’t speak English, we communicated in the international language of gestures. He showed me the mill and around the garden, picking tomatoes for me to taste. From what I can see, they grow potatoes, peppers, tomatoes and cabbages.

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A field of Khachkars

We then walked up to the church behind the house accessed by a steep and narrow path. Beyond the church there is a large field of Khachkars (stone crosses) - not as big as the cemetery in Noratus by Lake Sevan but impressive all the same. Some had holes like the standing stones at Karahunj.

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We then made our way back through the village and back to the guesthouse. I don’t know many teenage boys in the UK who would take the initiative and act as a guide to a total stranger. However, it was clear that this was a family business and everyone had their part to play.

The meal in the evening was just how I remembered previous stays at guest houses with delicious home cooking using fresh ingredients, mostly from the garden. I had huge amounts of food put on the table which I couldn’t possibly eat. The french group seemed to have the same amount between five of them. I joined them for a mulberry vodka. They were going to go for an evening walk to the cemetery and do some Armenian dancing. I declined - by now exhaustion had hit and I was in bed by 9pm. It was very soothing to hear the mill stream outside - I like the sound of a river or sea when I’m going to sleep.

Posted by Cath_Greig 21:01 Archived in Armenia Tagged monastery armenia khachkars nagorno-karabagh Comments (0)

Day twenty-eight - over the border to Artsakh

Monday 23 September 2019

sunny 25 °C

Feminist Armenians

I had a good breakfast at Mirhav - everything was fresh, not stale like the food at the Grand Resort at Jermuk. I chatted with one of the Armenian guides who was looking after a Swiss couple. Turns out she is a clinical psychologist based in Yerevan and who works as a guide on a freelance basis around her other work. She has had a lot to do with the feminist library that my niece volunteered at and knows Kira, the budding filmmaker that I met in Yerevan. I’m impressed by the strong women that I’ve met - it seems that the feminists are a small but well connected group.

Khndzoresk

Our final destination was to be Artsakh but before that, my itinerary included Old Khndzoresk, a cave village close to Goris. Even though I’ve been twice before, it is worth revisiting. I had to go by Taxi as Karen’s car has a low undercarriage and the road is rutted and bumpy. He arranged a point where the taxi could drop me off so that we could then carry on with our journey.

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I didn’t explore too far off the beaten track as the pathways are a bit like scree slopes and I didn't want to risk a fall. To get down to the caves there is a suspended walkway. The first time I came, we had to walk down a path to get there. There are a phenomenal amount of steps just to get down to the bridge. I thought I’d find the footpath back up the hill but I just couldn’t remember where it was so clambered up the steps. Although a bit daunting, if taken in stages with small rest breaks, it’s fine. I bumped into the french party that had been at Mirhav hotel. Apparently we are doing a similar itinerary so I’ll be seeing a lot of them over the next few days.

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Over the border

At the Artsakh border, I had to get my visa. I’m not sure of the cost as this sort of thing is handled by the travel company. Last time I came we had to pick the paperwork up at the border but go to the visa office in Stepanakert to get the visa. This is a much better system. The journey - although beautiful - is very slow as there are so many twists and turns as the road hugs the contours of the hillside. After a while, I started to feel a bit travel sick, luckily it passed. The good news is that there is another border access point further north that’s been open for a few years so we didn’t have to return the same way.

Shushi & Stepanakert

We finally arrived in Shushi, dominated by the 40 metre high St. Amenaprkich (St. Almighty) church with it’s striking white walls. Apparently, the town used to be quite a multi-cultural and artistic centre. As well as churches, there were three mosques at one time. Last time we came, we explored the Hunot gorge and it’s unusual waterfalls - definitely worth doing at least once. We also stopped to have a look at the fortress on the way out of town.

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Our next and final stop for the day was Stepanakert and the Park Hotel, near the centre of town and behind the cathedral. I had a guide booked for a tour of the museum. Some interesting exhibits and an informative section about Soviet times and the conflict over the disputed territory of Nagarno Karabagh.

I walked down to the market and bought a Jengylov Hats for a quick lunch from the same stall we went to last time I was here. The market was pretty quiet - not sure when their busy time is. I went to explore the area and see if I recognised anything. The main street, Azatamartikneri is long and has a range of shops on it. It probably isn’t the most interesting place but I strolled to the bottom and back, then past the presidential building before returning to the hotel. I wish I’d checked my guide book as I completely missed the area around the Museum of the fallen soldiers which was quite close to the hotel. I remember it being a pleasant area despite the tragic subject matter with a good arts and crafts shop nearby.

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I decided to look for somewhere other than the hotel to get food and found a place called Samra, run by a Syrian Armenian family and serving Middle Eastern food. The menu was quite meat orientated but they made me a plate of falafel and salad which suited me fine. This was rounded off with a cup of herb tea. The owner showed me the dried herb used for the tea. He had originally brought the plant from Syria and had propagated it, drying it for the winter months. I couldn’t quite place it but it did have a bit of a lemon balm scent. He called it Melissa - when I looked it up later, I found that it’s the Latin name for lemon balm!

Wine is cheaper than tea

I’d spotted a “Wine Pub” close by so thought I’d pop in and treat myself to a glass of local wine before going back to the hotel. It was very good and in a huge glass. There was a lot of comings and goings in the place but I seemed to be the only one drinking there. I was surprised at the bill which came to 550 AMD - equivalent of about 80p. When I got back to the hotel I thought that I’d have a pot of tea. This cost me 900 AMD - almost equivalent to two glasses of wine!

A lot of noise was coming from the restaurant. It sounded like some sort of celebration. As I was on the second floor it didn’t really disturb me and I have ear plugs for those eventualities. I don’t think everyone was going to get a good night’s sleep though!

Posted by Cath_Greig 10:16 Archived in Armenia Tagged stepanakert shushi khndzoresk nagorno_karabagh artsakh Comments (0)

Day twenty-seven - the road to Goris

Sunday 22 September 2019

overcast 16 °C

Mermaid Falls

Breakfast at the hotel wasn’t awe-inspiring. The bread was stale and the fruit wasn’t very fresh. Despite that, I made sure I had a good feed up as food on the road is a bit haphazard. I really appreciated the hotel lift although I know that Karen, my driver would carry my case for me if needed. Although we left at 10am, there was still quite a chill in the air as the sun hadn’t warmed things up yet.

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The first stop was Mermaid Falls in Jermuk As the water runs down the rocks, it looks like Mermaid’s hair. There’s a story of a princess who fell in love with a shepherd, her father put a curse on her and she changed into a mermaid. You know the sort of thing! There was a lovely guy setting up the stall who took my photo for me. It was very chilly in the gorge as the sun hadn’t quite made it above the trees. At the top of the gorge there is a formidable looking building of rather imposing and austere looking architecture favoured by the soviets. It almost had CCCP stamped on it. Apparently, it was a popular hotel in soviet times but has been shut for a long time.

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Armenian Stonehenge

Jermuk is at a dead end so to get anywhere you have to return on the same road to reach the main route towards Meghri and The Iranian border. Although there is a lot of travelling by car on this trip, in Armenia it isn’t really about the destination but the amazing scenery in between.

Once back on the main road, we headed towards Karahunj - the Armenian Stonehenge. It’s a very peaceful place made even more interesting by the birds of prey that are soaring overhead. Apparently, Karahunj means speaking stones and there is a theory that the holes help to make the whistling sound. I’ve seen plenty of eagles but there are other birds that I can’t identify although I think I have seen some falcons. Apparently, there are plenty of species of birds in Armenia and its a popular place for bird watchers.

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Spectacular Tatev

Our next stop was Tatev Monastery. The road there is at quite a high altitude so suddenly we were in fog or low clouds - not sure which. Anyway, we could hardly see a thing. I was so pleased that it wasn’t me driving in these conditions.

At one time Tatev was very isolated sitting as it does on a plateau overlooking a spectacular gorge. At one time it could only be reached by rutted, unmetalled roads with sheer drops on one side into a gorge and no barriers. That was my first experience in 2010. I hate those sorts of roads and even though I trusted our driver, it was still scary. In 2012, the cable car that was being constructed, was completed and the road down to the bottom of the gorge had been improved. Now, as well as the cable car, the road down to the bottom of the gorge and up to Tatev have tarmac. The roadway is still full of hairpin bends but there are barriers and feels 100% safer.

Karen thought that it wouldn’t be good to go on the cable car if foggy as I wouldn’t see anything. I didn’t fancy going on the road either, knowing how many hair pin bends there were. Luckily the fog/clouds cleared before we arrived at the cable car station.

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Sometimes there’s a long wait for due to queues but luckily one was due in 10 minutes with space so I paid my 5,000 AMD for a one way ticket and joined the line to get on. Queuing isn’t really a thing here and people barge past you with impunity! Karen was going to drive to Tatev so that we could do the journey back by car. I love cable cars and the views over the gorge are amazing. It’s also the longest cable car in the world. There is a lot of restoration work taking place at Tatev so I couldn’t access the fortress walls but there were still very good views towards the gorge and beyond. It was chilly though and so I had to have several layers on to keep warm.

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Karen was waiting for me outside the monastery so we made our way down the gorge. I couldn’t believe how much quicker it was now. We didn’t stop at the bottom by Devil’s Bridge as I’d been there twice before and it was also very busy. There are two thermal pools so worth a stop for a dip if it’s your first visit. It’s also quite dramatic as two sides of the gorge butt up against each other.

Last stop - Goris

Apparently the road to Goris can be foggy at this time of year but luckily we didn’t encounter any more and soon we were making our way down the valley into the town. Goris is quite attractive with houses built of stone in a grid. It feels very poor now and although some of the houses have been restored, many are very run down. My hotel was the Mirhav, and it was my third visit there. It’s probably the best in town and has a good restaurant. An annex has been built since I last came which is where I was placed - in the Penthouse suite. Not quite as glamorous as it sounds but a lovely big room with a Juliet balcony. The only access was via a lift and I realised that the only route out in the event of a fire was a ladder on the outside of the building. It’s lucky that I’m reasonably fit and agile!

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I changed into trousers and layered up to go and explore the town and look for somewhere to have lunch. I’d read that the Deluxe Lounge cafe was quite good and it seemed that it might actually be the only option anyway. I had a good tomato and pepper omelette, and what I thought were chips turned out to be crisps. Quite a strange combo.

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When I got back to the hotel I had a bit of a siesta and caught up on reading etc. I wanted to also make the most of my room. There were lots of groups staying at the hotel of many nationalities - French, Swiss, Spanish, Italian - I seem to be the only British person! I ate at the hotel - it has a good menu but I just opted for soup and salad with a glass of local wine which - just the right amount for me. The evening was chilly outside so I cosied up in my room to finish Tombland, my CJ Sansom book.

Posted by Cath_Greig 09:57 Archived in Armenia Tagged armenia tatev karahunj Comments (0)

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