Come with us to Maramureș-Bukovina!

Due to the successive trips to Lemberg and Georgia following each other so closely, only now do I have time to “officially” announce our journey to Maramureș and Bukovina, to be launched about three weeks from now. But since many of you have asked about it, and many of you also know the dates, it will certainly take place. The only question is whether we also will have to organize a second tour.

This year we organize our Maramureș-Bukovina tour – on popular demand, as it is already traditional here at río Wang – between 10 and 14 June (Wednesday–Sunday). We leave from Budapest by bus, and arrive through the medieval city of Baia Mare/Nagybánya, the cradle of Hungarian Impressionism and the gate of historical Maramureș, to one of the most archaic regions of Transylvania. We visit its wooden churches included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage and its Hasidic cemeteries, Sighetul Marmației/Máramarossziget, the central town of the region, cut in two by the Tisza river and the Ukrainian-Romanian border, and the “merry cemetery” of Sapânța/Szaplonca. We climb up with the narrow-gauge forestry railway to the virgin forest in the border mountains, to return in the afternoon, along with the wagons loaded with wood, to the Rusyn village of Vișeu de Sus/Felsővisó. We walk to the Horses’ Waterfall and the pass of the Radna Mountains. We visit the Renaissance-style princely monasteries in Bukovina, painted both inside and out with the full symbolism of Orthodox icons, which also feature on the list of UNESCO World Heritage. Our accommodation will be in traditional peasant farms engaged in agroturism, and – if we manage to reserve in time – in the Bukovina monasteries. And this year we will also do what last year we did not dare, due to the political situation: we will go over for a day to the Ukrainian Czernowitz, the traditional center of the region. Our accommodation will be in traditional peasant farms involved in local agrotourism, and in the Bukovina monasteries. On our similar tour of last year, you can read a detailed travel report here.

The participation fee for the five-day tour (accommodation with breakfast + bus from Budapest and back + guide) is 310 euros. Deadline of registration: 31 May, the usual e-mail

Our previous posts from the the former county of Maramureș (click for a full map), which will increase in the following weeks.

Welcome to Azerbaijan

Baku, this morning around the bus station, waiting for bus 85

A bus goes daily from Istanbul to Baku, it stops sometime in the afternoon on the highway around Kutaisi, at a Turkish grill. We fix the appointment by phone with the company, they will call us at the hostel from where we will have to leave. A taxi comes for us at four, it takes us to a small office in the outskirts. The Laz – a Muslim Georgian from Turkey – office manager is extremely nice. He orders a taxi, which takes us for twenty lari – about eight euros – to Zestaponi, thirty kilometers away, where the highway coming from the Turkish border through Batumi meets the Kutaisi-Tbilisi highway. At the roadside grill they serve both Georgian and Turkish food, and Turkish programs are playing on the TV hanging on the wall. Here, you can see an important function of the Turkish fast food places along the Georgian highways: they provide a continuous Turkish thread to follow for those traveling through the country. The bus arrives, with air-conditioning and wifi, the clientele is from the upper, relatively wealthy layer of Azerbaijani guest workers in Istanbul. They lunch, we leave. We stop once more, not much before the border, after the former industrial and now ghost town of Rustavi, north of the desert of David Gareja, at the Gaziantep Muslim restaurant, which is already quite similar to the roadside eating-houses in Kurdistan.

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An hour later we are at the border, above Ganja. In the modern building of the Georgian border station, just like in all the country, the stray dogs stroll about freely. The Georgian border guards look astonished at the Azerbaijani electronic visa, introduced in last year, they have never seen such a thing. They ask for help by phone, but they receive none. They ask us several times whether we are sure that we can enter Azerbaijan with this thing. If not, we are welcome for the night in the waiting room. Afterfinally rubber-stamping our passports, we then make a half-kilometer walk in no man’s land, like at the Iranian border stations, with all of our luggage. For us, this is only a backpack, but most of our fellow travelers move on as a spectacular caravan. Along the walk, some luxurious duty free shops brightly lit in the night, the Azeris standing around hasten offer us their help in buying cigarettes there, it seems that those coming home cannot do this for some reason. On the Azerbaijani border they make us unpack every bag to inspect the contents. They try to open my notebook computer, after some tries I offer my help, they are grateful for it. They ask about each electronic gadget, the external HDs, the scanner, the external DVD reader, the chargers, how they are called in English and in Russian. They find it amusing. We wait a long time in the bus – even now, as I write this – for all the passengers to pass through the customs gauntlet, and in the meantime we chat with the others. The woman with bleached-blonde hair has a textile business in Baku, she goes twice a year to Turkey to sign contracts for Italian, English, and Spanish goods, just now her elegant store is being built in the new shopping quarter of Baku. “I love our President very much”, she reveals a sincere confession. “He is so positive, so civilized. And my parents really loved his father.” When was I in Baku for the last time? “In three years Baku changed so much, you will not recognize it.” Does this mean, a thing of which I am sore afraid, that they have completely destroyed the old town? On the morrow, I will give the answer.

The waiter and a local electrician – who paid for our first breakfast – try to insert the wifi code in my notebook, in Café Baku at the central bus station. Photo by Lloyd Dunn

After the Flood

The Holy Trinity Church of Gergeti was built so high up, just beneath Kazbegi Peak, right under the “roof of the Caucasus”, that, just as they say about other sites – the San Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna, or some other prominent churches –, this alone was not inundated by the Flood.

Thus the dinosaurs survived the great world catastrophe only here, and it is attested by the 12th-century window of the bell tower of the church.

Their descendants still stroll about in the village. And the bones of the dead ones are incorporated by the locals in their dry-stacked stone fences.

As the rest of Georgia, which lies to the south of the Jvari Pass, was converted by St. Nino in the 4th century, so Gergeti, lying to the north of it, was converted by a certain St. Dino already before the Flood. His companion represented in the carving of the window is St. Trichontosaurus, who, after some failed attempts to spell it, was left out of the legend, so his name has not survived.


Ten-year old pandurist Rezo plays and sings during a feast at the Katskhi Monastery

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Kutaisi awakes

The rooster is crowing

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Tamaroba / თამარობა

Vardzia Valley, this morning

Queen Tamari Bagrationi (თამარი ბაგრატიონი) (Mtskheta 1160-1212) reigned in Georgia from 1184 until her death. She was the eldest daughter of King George III (1156-1184) and Queen Gurandukht. During her reign, Georgia became the most important state of the Caucasus region. She greatly expanded the borders of the country at the expense of the neighboring Muslim powers. Her importance is shown by the fact, that, in spite of being a woman, she was endowed with the title “King” (მეფე, mefe). After her death she was followed on the throne by her two children, George IV Lasha (1213-1223), and Queen Rusudan (1223-1245). Queen Tamar’s grave has never been identified with certainty.

Under Queen Tamar, Georgian culture also had its golden age. Georgian-language literature was renewed – this is the epoch of Shota Rustaveli, author of the Georgian national epic –, and, in the wake of the construction of a large number of churches, fine arts also flourished.

Tamar-era castles in the Vardzia Valley

The castle of Abastumani looks down on the valley of Adigeni, some thirty kilometers from Akhaltsikhe. The fortress, built under the reign of Queen Tamar, has survived in a good condition. From the peak rising near Abastumani one could well control the two valleys and the neighboring highlands. The valley leads from Akhaltsikhe to Kutaisi, and in the age it was an important trade route towards the Armenian and Turkish region. This explains the construction of the large number of fortresses in the villages along the route, and the presence of such towns and fortified monasteries as Vardzia or Vanis Kvabebi. In the Soviet period the fortress was often visited, as it is shown by the several Cyrillic inscriptions on its walls. Today it is only looked up by a few tourists who know it exists, and by local believers, as it is attested by the icons and candles placed in wall niches, as well as the large cross of Saint Nino.

The icon of Queen – King – Tamar stands alone in a niche which is difficult to reach, highlighting the devotion to the Queen and her significance. Her feast – თამარობა, Tamaroba – is celebrated today, on 14 May all over Georgia.

Old photos from Kutaisi

“I commend this photo to my dear mother in memory of myself, so that she may have a picture of me, because I am far away. Look at it often, and do not forget me. Keep it until your death. Alexandre Ghoghoberidze. 21 February 1915”

Together with Jacopo and Eka, we sit in a kitchen in Mestia, beneath the mountains of Svaneti, and we pore over the Georgian inscriptions on old photos. It is not easy: in a hundred years the Georgian language has changed a lot: old dialectal forms are gone, courtesy formulas have been forgotten, the alphabet was reformed, even handwriting has changed.

“I commend this in memory of myself to my sweet mother and father, and my dear brothers. […] Tabidze. These two boys are my really good friends, Ivane and […] Mamaladze. 29 February 1904.”

The photos, by Georgian boys leaving for the Great War,  were left to their parents and brothers, so they would remember them after they died somewhere in Galicia, the Hungarian Carpathians, or under Przemyśl. On them, the authors pay respectful thanks to an editor for having published their articles in the journal of the cultural association of the small town. Officers, citizens dressed in Georgian folk costume, ladies, fathers of families stand for the last time before the photographer, and bear witness, a hundred years later, to a vanished Kutaisi.

“Ekaterina Eristavi, founder of the library of Medjuriskhevi, sister of Kita Abashidze. Shalva Eristavi, from Medjuriskhevi. [… illegible] With thanks to Ekaterina, for having so willingly published my work in the journal Iveria, thereby also enriching the readers of the reading room.”

I found these photos in the cabinet of a small antique shop on the street behind the bazaar of Kutaisi, where we went with Eti to peruse old jewelry. They permit me to take photos of them. Many of them are as if they had been taken by Ermakov, it seems that his successful photos made a school among the Georgian photographers at the turn of the century. I hope to find a photo by him, too, but then I find out that the original photos by Ermakov are kept at home by their owner, the young historian and renowned collector Ramaz Obuladze. He has already published his second book on old Georgian photographs, entitled The Georgian Attire, in which he illustrates traditional clothing kept in museums with the pre-war photographs of mountain dwellers in their traditional costumes and patriotic urban citizens dressed in folk costume. Soon I will write about this, too.

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Barcelona – Bayern München

Photo by Csaba Labancz

Sighnaghi, a small town in Eastern Georgia, on the cliff of the Gombori Range, deep beneath us the wide plains of the Kura and Alazani rivers, across the mountains of Azerbaijan. By midnight, only a small Georgian company sits in front of the wide screen in the restaurant of the only hotel, on the day of Saint George, the patron saint of Georgia, on which I first arrived to Georgia twenty years ago. Messi kicks the second goal. A member of the company rises to toast, with an archaic clay vessel in the hand, filled to the brim. Drinks it out, and passes it to the next. “What do they drink to?”  I ask of the waiter. “To the ancestors. On St. George’s night we drink to the ancestors, who died, so Georgia could live in freedom.”

The red wall board • El colgador rojo

Lemberg, Gas Lamp Café in the Armenian Renaissance house, where in 1853 a Pole and a Hungarian invented kerosene. The four floors of the café are decorated with photos, newspaper clippings, shares and objects of use in the fin-de-siècle oil fields of Galicia. In the glass-enclosed top floor with open views over the rooftops of old Lemberg, a typical red-painted Soviet-era wall board with red fire buckets and shovel. “Do you know why the bottom of the fire bucket was pointed in those days?” asks András. “So it would not be stolen. Because like this, it could not be used for anything else.”

Leópolis, Café Luz de Gas en la casa renacentista armenia donde en 1853 un polaco y un húngaro inventaron el queroseno. Los cuatro pisos de la cafetería están decorados con fotos, recortes de periódico, cacharros variopintos y objetos de uso cotidiano en los campos petroleros del fin de siglo en Galizia. En la planta superior acristalada que mira sobre los tejados de la antigua Leópolis cuelga de la pared un tablero pintado de rojo, típico de la era soviética, con cubos de incendio también rojos y una pala. «¿Por qué se harían estos cubos en forma de cono en aquella época?», se pregunta András. «Así nadie se los llevaba. Con esta forma no podían utilizarse para otra cosa».

Kutaisi, Georgia, inner courtyard of the city museum, with old Georgian grape treading tub • Kutaisi, Georgia, patio interior del museo de la ciudad con una antigua artesa para pisar la uva

Abastumani, Southern Georgia, inside an Armenian church that was converted into bakery in Soviet times and then left to decay • Abastumani, Georgia del Sur, en el interior de la iglesia armenia transformada en horno de pan en tiempos soviéticos y luego abandonada

Gelati, royal monastery

Mama o shenma. The monks of the monastery and singer school of Zarzma
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El centenario

Recogida en el viejo barrio armenio-judío, la pequeña iglesia armenia está hasta los topes esta mañana. Mucha más gente que en una misa dominical normal. La región del sur de Georgia, habitada por armenios, no se vio afectada por el genocidio de 1915, pero muchos sobrevivientes de las masacres del Imperio Otomano llegaron huyendo hasta aquí. Sus descendientes hoy conmemoran, junto con los armenios dispersos por todo el mundo, que hace cien años, el 24 de abril de 1915, doscientos cincuenta líderes armenios fueron arrestados en Constantinopla, dándose inicio así a la persecución y expulsión de los varios millones de personas que componían la fuerte población armenia del Imperio Otomano.

Una niña de doce o trece años se me acerca con sus enormes ojos oscuros, diciéndome en un florido inglés: «Quisiera preguntarle, caballero, ¿qué piensan en Europa sobre lo que nos pasó? ¿Hay alguien que reconozca que hubo un genocidio armenio?» «Por supuesto, en Europa casi todo el mundo lo reconoce». «Gracias, muchas gracias, caballero», dice con admiración.

El anciano sacerdote habla largamente, con calma. Sólo entiendo frases sueltas del sermón, recitado en el dialecto armenio de Akhaltsikhe: los nombres de los países, las naciones, las personas y, de manera recurrente, metz yeghern, «el gran crimen», como designan los armenios al genocidio. La gente escucha atentamente, asintiendo con la cabeza. «¿De qué hablaba?», pregunto al final de la misa. «Que no hay que olvidar lo que pasó, pero que debemos superarlo y no odiar a los descendientes de los que nos hicieron esto».

Misa en la iglesia armenia de Akhaltsikhe

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The hundredth year

Hiding in the old Armenian-Jewish neighborhood, the little Armenian church was packed this morning. There are many more people than on a regular Sunday Mass. The southern region of Georgia, inhabited by Armenians, was not hit by the Genocide of 1915, but many survivors of the massacres in the Ottoman Empire fled here. Their descendants today commemorate, together with the Armenians scattered all over the world, that a hundred years ago, on 24 April 1915, 250 Armenian leaders were arrested in Constantinople, and thus began the extermination and expulsion of the several million strong Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire.

A twelve or thirteen year old girl comes to me, with huge dark eyes, calling me in very ornate English: “I want to ask you, Sir, what they think in Europe about what happened to us? Is there anyone who recognizes that there was an Armenian genocide?” “Of course, in Europe almost everyone recognizes it.” “Thank you very, very much, Sir,” she says in awe.

The old priest speaks long, calmly. I understand only snippets of the sermon, recited in the Armenian dialect of Akhaltsikhe: the names of countries, nations, persons, and the recurrent term metz yeghern, “the great crime”, as the Armenians call the Genocide. People are watching intently, nodding. “What did he talk about?” I ask at the end of the mass. “That we must not forget what happened, but we must rise above it, and must not hate the descendants of those who did this to us.”

Mass at the Armenian church of Akhaltsikhe

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