art, Champagne Bucket trips

The last full day in Hayastan… part ten of our Armenian adventure!

Saturday, November 18th was our last full day in Armenia. I had some mixed emotions about it. On one hand, we’d had a really good time in Armenia, and there are still some things I want to show Bill. The weather was surprisingly mild; we had several nice, sunny days, and I had a feeling Germany wouldn’t be quite as temperate.

But, on the other hand, I was really missing our street dog, Noyzi. Yerevan has all these sweet, adorable street dogs, now. Unlike many of the ones I remembered from the 90s, the ones who are now in Yerevan seem gentle and wise. They made me miss our dog from Kosovo, and reminded me that I want another one. I also wanted to do laundry. It’s not that I enjoy doing laundry. I just like wearing clean clothes, and I was running out of clean underwear. 😉

I was still a bit sore and tired from our long walk to Tsitsernakaberd. And Bill was still very worried about the paintings we bought from the guy from Ashtarak. He had done some research and found an art supplies store at the Rossia Mall near the Zorovar Andranik metro station, which was just one stop away from Republic Square. So, after breakfast, we headed that way, first stopping by the art sellers by the Opera House. I was hoping to run into the guy from Ashtarak again, because I wanted to buy his Ararat painting. I might have been inspired by the clear sight of Ararat that morning. It finally came out in full glory on our last day.

Unfortunately, the art guy wasn’t there on Saturday morning, so we headed back toward the Vernissage, cutting through Northern Avenue and Abovian Street, then using the underpass by the Republic Square metro station. I thought maybe we’d shop at the Vernissage again, especially since there were a lot more sellers there. But, as we walked, my body cried out in painful protest. I was hurting!

With every step, I got crankier… and when we were confronted with the traffic on Khandjian Street, I got downright pissy. To get across the street safely, we had to use one of the overpasses, which required us to walk up steps, go across a bridge, and then walk down again. I did not want to walk up or down any more steps.

The overpasses, by the way, didn’t exist when I lived in Yerevan. We’d either use the underpasses, some of which were pretty awful, or we’d take our lives in our hands and dash across the street. But Yerevan now has pedestrian lights and crosswalks at most intersections, and from what I understand, people are expected to use them, or risk getting a ticket. Unfortunately, there was no easy way to cross Khandjian Street directly from the Vernissage, so we used the overpass. My old body complained the whole way, and so did my mouth. 😉

We made our way toward Zorovar Andranik, passing an amusement park and Queen Burger, a notoriously “bad” fast food place that opened in 1996. I actually remember when that place first opened. It had very new and modern looking equipment, to include fountain drink dispensers, and an actual “burger” on the roof (since removed after renovation). But I guess they couldn’t get fountain drinks in Yerevan back then, because I remember I could see through the windows that they had plastic liter bottles of Coca Cola sitting under the dispensers. The restaurant has been expanded and renovated since 1996, but it still gets pretty terrible reviews on TripAdvisor and Facebook. I have never eaten there myself, so I can’t confirm or deny the veracity of the terrible reviews. Somehow, they manage to stay in business, anyway.

Near Queen Burger is an underpass I remember well. In the 90s, it was lined with people selling stuff. There are still some people selling things in the underpass– mostly cheap purses, sunglasses, and cell phone cases. But then on the other side is the Rossia Mall, which was built in 2016. If I hadn’t been so exhausted and sore, I might have been more excited. In the 90s, the area where the mall now stands was basically a big lot where people set up stalls and sold food, booze, and various other odds and ends. I remember shopping there occasionally, when I was in that part of the city. Now, there’s a mall.

I was rapidly losing patience with Bill, who was trying to figure out which door to enter. There was a department store that was obviously not what he was looking for, then we had to climb more steps to enter the main part of the mall. It wasn’t a very big mall, and it was crowded with stores. We went up an escalator into a store that was selling a lot of luggage.

A surreal feeling came over me as I took in the scene. I was in an actual shopping mall in Yerevan! But it still wasn’t as strange to me as the sight of the water park. I still have vivid memories of people living in Yerevan who had no running water and had to leave their taps on, in the hopes that they could fill their bathtub and water bottles in the middle of the night. Now, Yerevan has an actual water park! I wonder if that means that kids stay out of the fountains in the summer, now. Probably not, since it doesn’t cost anything to play in the fountains. 😉

Finally, we found the art supply store. It was tucked in a corner, and pretty much overflowing with stuff for sale. The store’s space was small, but they had a lot of inventory. In fact, there was so much inventory that it was kind of hard to walk through there. We had to look for several minutes to find the art portfolios. A couple of women working at the store noticed us and followed, while the male cashier seemed completely disinterested. I’m not sure if they were running security, or if they were just curious about the obvious foreigners.

Bill and I ignored the gawking women, and searched through the portfolios. Bill finally found one that looked large enough to accomodate our paintings. He paid for our item and we walked out of the mall. I looked around some more for any sign of the large market that used to be there. I saw no evidence of it, but the huge apartment building that was there in 1996 was still there in all its ugly, Soviet era glory. I’ve seen that building in a lot of pictures. It really is impressive in its brutal Soviet look. We made our way to the crosswalk and I said, “If we head this way on Tigran Mets, we’ll end up at Republic Square.”

Originally, I had thought maybe we’d go to the Vernissage and look for another painting. But I was just too tired, and too testy… and my body was over all the walking. I didn’t feel like trying to converse in Armenian anymore, or explaining why I know ANY Armenian. I didn’t want to haggle with anyone, either. So we headed back, which gave me the chance to show Bill yet another major Yerevan street I used to know.

We crossed the street from the mall, and I pointed out a building that I remembered from my last weekend in Yerevan in 1997. There was a French charity called Saberatours that was bringing mail to Armenians via France. Up until a few weeks prior, we Peace Corps Volunteers had enjoyed diplomatic pouch privileges. But, as Armenia’s postal system improved, the privileges were taken away. The trouble was, I had plans to go to Europe after my service was finished, and I bought a Eurail ticket. I needed to get the ticket before I got to Europe. So I used the Saberatours service, and my Eurail ticket got to me just in the nick of time. The building where I got my ticket was historic, too. It was the government building where Aram Manukian had declared independence in May 1918.

We reached Republic Square, where I noticed workers were putting up Christmas decorations. I’ve seen the huge Christmas tree they now put up in the middle of the square in photos. When I lived in Yerevan, Christmas wasn’t a big deal. They celebrated it on January 6th, rather than December 25th. New Year’s was the big holiday. Today, I’m not sure what Armenians do for Christmas. I have noticed that, like many European countries, Armenian now has Christmas markets. Those were NOT a thing in the 90s. But it seems that a lot of countries have taken Germany’s lead and offer the festive stalls selling arts, crafts, and food. Google tells me that religious Armenians still celebrate Christmas on January 6th, but maybe some people do it on the 25th, and have Santa come and all that other shit… 😉

We decided to take a short rest before venturing out again. Our room hadn’t been made up yet, even though it was afternoon. I used the time to upload photos and do some writing. Bill used it to pack, and arrange for a cab in the middle of the night. I think we were a bit tired of sightseeing.

At mid afternoon, we decided to try one last restaurant we’d noticed… Dors Craft Beer and Kitchen, which was just around the corner from Paris Hotel Yerevan. Like just about all of the other places we noticed in Yerevan, Dors Craft Beer and Kitchen was selling Dargett craft beers. That was fine with me. On our way out of the room, the housekeeper asked me in Armenian (or Russian–I don’t remember) if we’d like our room cleaned. We said sure. At that point, it didn’t matter. We’d be checking out at about 2:30 AM, anyway.

After we visited Dors Craft Beer and Kitchen, we headed back to the hotel and tried to rest before our super early departure. More on that in the next post!

Champagne Bucket trips

Rainy Wednesday at the Vernissage, and a meaningful chat with a waitress… part seven of our Armenian adventure!

On Wednesday morning, it was still a bit rainy outside. We decided to eat breakfast inside the hotel, instead of in the outdoor dining area of the rooftop restaurant. As usual, there was a good spread and plenty of different items to choose from, although I tended to stick with the same things most days.

Our plan was to visit the Vernissage, which in the 90s used to only run on the weekends. The “flea market” is still held near the metro station for Republic Square (Հանրապետության Հրապարակ), just like it used to be back when I lived in Yerevan. However, now there are long, permanent stalls set up, so vendors can enjoy protection from the rain and sun. There are also a couple of actual stores on the grounds that sell everything from art, to khorovats grill sets, to chess sets.

My goal was to look for more art for our house and some toys for Bill’s grandchildren. I also wanted to show Bill around this market, which is a great place to go for souvenirs, even if some of what is sold there is legitimate crap. The Vernissage is often kind of festive, although it’s probably best to visit on the weekends, when there are a lot more vendors and things to choose from. In retrospect, it was probably better that we went on Wednesday, because by Saturday, I was pretty tired, cranky, and sore from all the walking we did.

As we walked through the stalls, people encouraged us to stop for a look. I said to one woman, “Heto, k’gam.” (later, I will come), but that kind of turned out to be a lie. Nevertheless, we did find a few things. I bought a couple of supposedly cashmere scarves that the saleslady assured me I could put in the washing machine. They were the same design, but different colors. I’ll probably wear them when I make YouTube videos. I like to wear shawls and scarves over my nightgowns, so I don’t have to change clothes! 😉

Our second stop was where we bought a few magnets for our fridge, and to send to Bill’s daughter. Next to the magnet lady was a very friendly guy who was selling coffee grinders and Armenian coffee pots. He was laying it on thick, too, even showing us a pot that had a stamp that read “USSR”. I asked him if it was old, and he said it wasn’t. Hmmm… Well, I guess I can’t blame him for trying.

I’m not sure that stamping USSR on stuff is the best way to make a sale, since the USSR wasn’t really known for putting out high quality products, unless you’re discussing booze. Naturally, they were both surprised I could speak some Armenian, although he was actually talking to Bill a lot. Bill bought a pot and a grinder, and the friendly coffee pot guy threw in a “free” spoon. Besides, if the coffee pot had been produced in the Soviet Union, I would have expected the stamp to read CCCP. Maybe we should have bought one just for the laughs.

We had to stop at that point, because Bill needed to get more drams, and it was soon getting close to lunchtime. So we brought our items back to the room and walked around the block behind the hotel. There, we found a gastropub called Bambak.

Bambak had a relatively simple menu and offered interesting dishes. I really enjoyed the music, which one of the waiters said was courtesy of Spotify. I don’t use Spotify myself, but maybe it’s time I got with the times. I did a lot of Shazamming while we were dining. Bill had beef cheeks with mashed potatoes. I had a bruschetta with poached eggs and smoked salmon. I liked the way the eggs were presented. They almost looked like hinkalis.

By the time we finished lunch, the sun was coming out. We decided to go back to the Vernissage to look for locally made toys for Bill’s grandchildren. I had noticed one stall that offered wooden toys and matryoshka dolls. We stopped there and met a guy named Aram who sold us a wooden car, a wooden train, and a pretty matryoshka doll. We also bought a couple of artsy looking mugs from a different vendor, since we collect them from the places we visit. Aram was really working the sale, and he was very nice.

Unfortunately, on our way back to Germany, one of the wheels came off the wooden car. I don’t feel too upset about it, though, because it kind of reminds me of what life in Armenia could be like, back in the day! Bill will get some wood glue and fix it before we send it to Utah.

Stepan had told us about Dargett craft beers, and its restaurant on Aram Street. Since we love craft beers, Bill and I decided that Dargett was a must visit. After a short rest at the hotel, we went there and proceeded to try a bunch of different Armenian “suds”. Beer is served in smaller glasses in Armenia than in Germany. That makes it easier to try all kinds of different stuff. I loved the classic rock they were playing in Dargett and the laid back atmosphere. The staff looked like they enjoyed their jobs and working together. We stayed awhile, and later ordered some snacks to carry us over until the morning.

Last week, when we visited Dargett, I wrote about the waitress we talked to as we were paying. She had noticed my hilarious Armenian skills and struck up a conversation. She knew about the Peace Corps, having grown up in Kapan, a southern city in Armenia. Her father had lived in Baku, Azerbaijan for 35 years and had to move back to Armenia, where he worked as a chef. She had done well in school and was twice invited to participate in the FLEX Program, which would have allowed her to spend a year at an American high school. This is the same program Stepan’s daughter did at a high school in Washington State. Her parents would not let her go, though, so she moved to Yerevan and now works as a food and beverage manager at a hotel, and waits tables at Dargett. She said she was 23 years old, and life in Armenia was hard.

Of course, I wouldn’t say being 23 is easy for a lot of people, even in the United States. On the other hand, when I was 23, I also lived in Yerevan! I didn’t have an easy time as a 23 year old in Yerevan, either. My heart went out to her. She said she dreams of living in Europe. I can’t blame her for that. Talking to her was a reminder that life is still not easy in Yerevan, even though it’s obviously more comfortable there than it used to be. I was also reminded that some people don’t have passports that allow them to travel as easily as a US passport does.

I guess I can’t blame the young woman’s parents for not wanting her to go to the United States. I’m sure, to a lot of people, the USA doesn’t look that great anymore. Her parents might have been worried about anything from Donald Trump’s influence to school shootings. School shootings, in particular, seem like a minor risk… until your child is at a school where one happens. Anyway, I don’t even want to go back to the United States myself, and I am a native. So I can definitely empathize… and I hope things get better for her. Her English is impeccable, which will already take her far.

We walked back to the hotel at about 9:00 or so, ready to go to bed. The next day would be our 21st wedding anniversary… which I have already written about, but I’ll do it again in the next post, since I have lots of photos to share.

Champagne Bucket trips, dental, holidays

Strange welcome back to Tübingen… part one of our 2023 Czech tour!

We’re now back from our trip to the Czech Republic, otherwise known as Czechia. I planned this trip in late July, in anticipation of our bi-yearly dental exams in Stuttgart. Bill usually handles booking our dental appointments, because when we go depends on when he’s able to get away from work. When we last saw Dr. Blair in the spring, Bill made an appointment for early October. A couple of months later, the dentist’s receptionist contacted Bill to reschedule, because the original appointment was for German Reunification Day or thereabouts. Somehow, we got the idea that the new appointment was for Monday, October 2, which technically, wasn’t a holiday in Germany.

I planned our trip around the appointment, deciding that this time, we’d go to the lovely city of Tübingen for three nights instead of staying in Stuttgart or the Black Forest. There is a hotel there that I’d been wanting to try. We used to go there to eat in their restaurant when we lived in the Stuttgart area. I have always loved visiting Tübingen on day trips, and I figured it would be fun to go stay there for a few days, especially since there are a lot of nice areas nearby that are good for day trips.

A week or so before we started our journey to Tübingen, I got a message from Hotel La Casa, the boutique hotel I’d booked. They were letting me know that due to a lack of staff, they were going to have to close their hotel on Sunday, the day after we checked in. But, because I’d booked an apartment, we were allowed to “self-cater” and they’d give us a 20 percent discount for the inconvenience.

It did seem rather strange to be staying in a hotel that would have no staff available, but we’ve certainly self-catered plenty of times. So I thanked the lady for letting me know, and on Saturday, September 30, 2023, we made our way down there. On the way, we stopped at the Hundepension Birkenhof to drop off Noyzi, who was only too delighted to be staying there again. He loves going to the dog hotel and meeting new canine friends.

Noyzi is delighted to be back at the Hundepension!

After we dropped off Noyzi, we visited a very crowded rest stop. I guess a lot of Germans were headed out for the holiday. I got a few photos… I think I was enchanted by the wall of horse toys. When I was a kid, I would have been all over that!

When we got to Tübingen, we spoke to the lady manning the reception. She told us that not only did they have to close the hotel for most of our stay, but they’d also had to close the restaurant! She said they didn’t have enough staff to run it, and there weren’t enough people interested in dining there. I thought that was a pity, since we ate there three times and enjoyed ourselves. But a lack of staff in hospitality, especially since COVID, has been a real problem.

Because the hotel was fully booked when we arrived, there weren’t any parking spots available for us in the hotel’s dedicated garage. But since Tübingen doesn’t require people to pay for street parking on weekends, we just found a spot a block or so away. The next day, when everyone checked out, they gave us a spot in the garage and didn’t even charge us for it.

We were in Room 105, which was clearly originally a suite with adjoining rooms. The sitting room with the kitchenette had a shower with a rainfall head, while the shower in the bedroom was a spout type. Both showers were very small, but once you got into them, they were nice enough. The room came with free beverages, two televisions, and a rather uncomfortable bed. But there is a pizza/pasta joint nearby, and a couple of grocery stores, as well as a decent bakery, and it’s not too hard to walk into Tübingen… It takes maybe 15 or 20 minutes. We had beautiful weather, so that made it easier for us.

Interesting lighting system. It was also how to work the “do not disturb” sign (red light or green light).

Hotel La Casa has a pool/spa/hammam. The hammam, unfortunately, was closed– again, due to a lack of staff. Bill checked out the pool, which he said was pretty, but very small. We didn’t get a chance to use it before the hotel closed. In spite of the closures, we had an okay stay, except the bed wasn’t too good for our backs. But it is a very unique hotel, with decor done in a Spanish/Moorish style, and the staff is very pleasant. I would consider booking it again. Below are some photos from the room.

We managed to discover a new “to us” Biergarten in Tübingen that we’d never been to before caled Brauwerk Freistil. They do craft beers and snacks there, as well as offer fun activities like karaoke and billiards. We went there for a beer and to have a look at the Neckar River from the other side of our usual favorite Biergarten, the Neckarmüller. We actually went to the Neckarmüller twice, because although they make typical (excellent but kind of boring) German beers, their Biergarten is awesome.

It was interesting to stay just south of Tübingen. We had never had the opportunity to explore the southern side of this college town when we still lived in the Stuttgart area. It was a new experience to walk around there and see what was in that part of town. Below are some photos from our first night, Saturday the 30th. We were a little surprised the Biergartens were still open, as they’re usually closed by the time we visited. But the weather was unusually warm and very beautiful, so I guess it makes sense that they kept the outside areas open. Usually by this time of year, pants, closed shoes, and jackets are essential, but not in 2023. I needed my shorts and t-shirts.

Wow! Just look at these photos! Tübingen is just as beautiful as I always remember it, with plenty of people out and about, enjoying the city. I’m glad we stayed in Tübingen for this trip, even if it ended up being for naught. More on that in the next post… I need to take a pause and walk Noyzi.


Big business in Poland, part seven

Tuesday morning, Bill had to get up much earlier to meet his bus, which departed at 7:30am. Because I am a dutiful wife and am used to waking up in the pre-dawn hours, I got up with Bill. We enjoyed another chaotic breakfast in the Sofitel restaurant. I’ll just say that every day last week, it was pretty much the same thing. Up early and waiting at the locked restaurant door at 6:30am, much like I did at Longwood College in the early 90s. The experience was eerily reminiscent of those days. The only things missing were the grits and biscuits and gravy, and a big, friendly, maternal black lady named Tina who called everyone “baby” and asked for their IDs. Instead, we had pretty young Polish women asking for our room numbers.

After breakfast, I came back to the room, did some writing, did some reading, and went back to sleep. I did this most days. Again, not so different from my college days, although back then, if I was up early, it was because I had an 8:30am class. It’s hard to believe I used to think that was super early. Now, I can sleep whenever I want to, but I’m usually up by 6:00am, despite having neither children nor a job.

Anyway, on Tuesday, I ventured to the Doctors’ Bar for lunch. It is just across the street from the Sofitel, and boasts some really excellent Polish craft beers. I am a beer lover, but when we were in Poland in 2008, I was not at all impressed with their regular suds. I tried beers like Lech, Zywiec, and Tyskie, mainstream brands that are probably akin to American brands like Budweiser or Miller. I concluded that I don’t go to the Poles for beer. Instead, I go to them for their vodka.

Well… I am here to tell you that in 2019, Poland has a rather exciting craft beer trend going on. On Monday night, Bill and I hung out in the hotel bar and tried a couple of the local craft beers made by Profesja, a Wroclaw craft brewery. I wasn’t hugely impressed by the Profesja beers, although they were better than the beers I tried in 2008. The one thing I did like was the cool label on the super strong dark beer I tried. Check out the picture below.

The Doctors’ Bar was pretty empty when I arrived at 12:00pm, and the pretty young server who looked after me invited me to sit anywhere I liked. They were playing upbeat jazzy piano music that I quite liked. I perused the menu, as the waitress said they had a bone in pork chop available. I ended up ordering a cheeseburger, although I noticed the pork chop was very popular. It was probably delicious. I should have ordered that instead. When the cheeseburger arrived, it was so huge I had to eat it with a knife and fork. Seriously… it was gargantuan! However, it was also probably one of the better burgers I’ve had in Europe. The patty was handmade, 100% beef, and very juicy, covered in mildly sharp Cheddar cheese and adorned with lettuce, onions, habanero mayonnaise, tomatoes, cucumbers, and guacamole. It also came with fries with the skins on.

On the day of my visit, Doctors’ Bar had eight draft beers available, again made by a Polish brewery. I ordered a Maryensztadt Klasycznie Porter Baltycki. Maryensztadt Brewery is located in Zwoleń, Poland, well east and a bit north of Wroclaw. I liked the two Maryensztadt beers I tried more than the Profesja beers I had at the hotel. I also tried the Maryensztadt Rye Oat Orange Stout, and enjoyed that one even more than the porter. Doctors’ Bar also has a full service bar and a large array of bottled beers available.

I had to walk off the lunch, so I wandered more around the city and found more potential venues for eating, drinking, and making merry. Wroclaw has a lot of interesting museums, a water park. an escape room, art galleries, shopping, and even a few activities for kids.

At about six o’clock, Bill came back to the hotel and we went out for dinner. Because I had such a huge lunch, we opted to share a rather plain buffalo mozzarella pizza at a restaurant called Bistro 8 1/2. Tucked into an alcove in the cluster of buildings in the middle of the market square, this tiny “hole in the wall” Italian place featured a very friendly waitress who sold us on a Venetian red wine that tasted of cherries.

Looking up this restaurant, I see that it has two locations. The one we went to appeared to be kind of a satellite location. The menu was small and, if I’m honest, I have had better pizza. I liked the crust, but the cheese was barely melted. This is kind of an issue for me, because I don’t like cold cheese. It’s a texture thing. But the waitress was so nice and the interior was so charming that I overlooked it. I wasn’t that hungry anyway. We did have dessert, too. Cannoli for me and panna cotta for Bill.

Ah well… we did stop by the hotel bar again, because there were some guys in there that Bill and I talked to the night before. They were also at the conference and commiserated with Bill about the ways of the Army. One of the guys is going to retire in about two years, so Bill was sharing his experiences. I got to say goodnight to a couple of cute dogs who were staying at the hotel. They made me miss Arran.

Next post!