Friday, 25 April 2014

Book Review: The Crossing Place


I’m back now from my travels around Armenia and Georgia and I have to say, what a fantastic part of the world, I recommend it to anyone. After my last update, Paul and I headed out to the desolately beautiful Lake Sevan, the Cave Monastery of Geghard and the Roman temple at Garni. When in Georgia we split and whilst Paul went to check out the delights of Stalin’s hometown Gori, (which I visited in 2010), I headed for Borjomi, a mountain spa resort where the best spring water in the Soviet Union was produced and Stalin once bathed. We then rejoined one another in a Tbilisi that has been much beautified since my last visit before jetting off home.

DSCF3341 Garni

DSCF3354 Geghard

borjomi Borjomi

Photo0188 Tbilisi

Now, I know that it is about time for me to start posting ‘The Missing Link’ again, but before I do I wish to introduce a new feature to Uncle Travelling Matt. Over the years I have read many works of travel literature, both about places that I have visited and those that I probably never will. Therefore, I have decided that, every so often, I shall post a review of a particular travel book that I have read and, since the last few updates have had an Armenian flavour then I thought it timely to continue our break from Romania for another week and instead provide you with this offering, a review of Philip Marsden’s work ‘The Crossing Place’, a journey, not just to Armenia, but more importantly, a journey among the Armenians.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

The Crossing Place: A Journey among the Armenians

Philip Marsden

The Crossing Place

I reread ‘The Crossing Place’ on my recent trip to Armenia finishing it off on the long bus journey from Nagorno-Karabakh to Yerevan. I’d originally read it over a decade before whilst I was living in Japan and from what I can recall it hadn’t left much of an impression then, but on this second attempt, with my knowledge of both the Armenians and the areas that they live/have lived much increased, I found it difficult to put down.

The Armenians don’t seem to be too fashionable a nation in the eyes of the world today; few people I know knew anything about them when I asked. Yet they should do, for as Marsden himself points out, their influence on the world has always far exceeded their numbers. Traders and travellers, their diaspora is scattered across the globe and they are responsible for things as disparate as introducing chess to Europe, (and still winning at it – Kasparov is half-Armenian), the green ink on the US banknotes, the MiG jet, perestroika and the first yoghurts in the USA. To that long and respectable list of notables, one can also add the more dubious merits of America’s most famous Armenian families, the Kardashians, who have taught girls globally that one does not need to have done anything to be famous and that you don’t have to be either blonde or pencil thin to be incredibly attractive.

But it is not success, but tragedy that Marsden starts his book with. The Armenian Holocaust of 1915 saw around a million perish at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. Sadly, the world did not learn the history lesson that it should have done. To this day Turkey denies the genocide and Hitler, whilst planning his ‘Final Solution for the Jewish Problem’, when asked if he thought they could get away with it, replied, “After all, who remembers the Armenians?” If only they had.

the crossing place ani Ani

But ‘The Crossing Place’ is not all doom and gloom despite the number of massacre sights that its author visits as well as ongoing war zones. What struck me as most remarkable about the book was how he, a non-Armenian, managed to penetrate and gain the trust of the Armenian community across the diaspora and into Armenia itself. He travels through Israel, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Bulgaria, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia and then finally Armenia itself, meeting priests and poets, hoteliers and housewives, policemen and peasants, traders, politicians, bishops, historians, artists, guerrilla fighters and a whole host more, the entire eclectic ensemble being held together by fine prose and Marsden’s own determined character.

I am familiar with many of the places that he visited: the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem, the ruined city of Ani in Eastern Turkey, Plovdiv in Bulgaria, the Armenian han in Bucharest, Iasi’s Armenian church, Van, Istanbul and now Armenia itself. But the world that I know and the one described in ‘The Crossing Place’ are two different places entirely, despite the fact that only two decades separate them. Marsden has immense difficulties getting a visa for Armenia, nowadays you don’t even need one; Bulgaria and Romania are dour and drab places in the book, today they are both exuberant EU members; in ‘The Crossing Place’ Lebanon is at war and Syria at peace, now the opposite is the case. All the remains as a constant are the tensions in Jerusalem and the eerie emptiness of Eastern Turkey where millions of Armenians should be found yet instead there is only silence and the crumbling remains of their churches.

For anyone interested in Armenia and the Armenians, ‘The Crossing Place’ is a must read. But beware! This is no longer contemporary travel writing; it is as much a work of history as the tomes of the great Victorian travel writers, for the world that it describes has, like so many Armenians, simply disappeared without a trace.

14th April, 2014

Yerevan, Armenia


Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Travel Update II: Yerevan, Armenia


Again, apologies for the infrequency of these updates; Blogspot's crazy security policy of demanding that you receive a text message from them everytime that you're out of your hometown. I tried to complain but you're not allowed to send them a direct email; grr...

Since my last update, we've been to another country, That is for sure but what is less certain is which country it is that we went to. My world atlas tells me that it was Azerbaijan but on the ground everyone considers it to be Nagorno-Karabagh. Yes indeed, it's another of those countries that aren't quite countries that I so adore. Two years back it was Transnistria, the breakaway region of Moldova, now it's the Armenian-populated piece of Azerbaijan that doesn't like its rulers and, like with Transnistria, got a little help from Russia in settting up on its own. And the newspapers are all pretending that Crimea + Eastern Ukraine is some sort of new phenomenon, but it's far from the case. That's also most likely the reason why the West won't recognise the place; for some inexplicable reason they just don't trust the Ruskies...

Nagorno-Karabagh Flag

But anyway, Nagorno-Karabagh is very nice. Its name means "Mountainous Black Garden" and it is more than a little mountainous. We visited a fabulous monastery high in the hills called Gandzasar but for me the highlight of the trip was driving past Aghdam, a city of 100,000 souls totally obliterated by the 1994 War of Independence,, every building bar the mosque destroyed and burnt out carcasses of tanks still littering the fields. It was like a scene out of a computer game or Stalingrad film. Eeerie and thought-provoking.


Now we're back in Yerevan, the most beautiful city of the former USSR where we've been spending our time drinking with both the locals, (some cool, football-obsessed lads who could not pass by on the opportunity to speak to a supporter of the world's greatest - and second-oldest - club), and a couple of Czechs whose appetite for travel matches mine and whose appetite for alcohol sadly, exceeds mine by a mile. Must be getting old. Still, at least I wasn't the one whom we had to stop the car for so that he could empty his guts...

Garni Roman Temple

Geghard Cave Monastery

As well as the alcohol, we're still hitting the sights; desolate and haunting Lake Sevan, the Roman temple at Garni and the incredible cave monasteries of Geghard. But that is all for Armenia, tonight we're travelling first class all the way back to Tbilisi. Must be getting bourgeouis as well as old. Damn.

Anyway, to finish off, since it worked well as a cheap ploy to get hits on my blog, here's another picture of some Yerevan girls.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Friday, 11 April 2014

Travel Update I: Sisani, Armenia


It's been longer than I expected sending an update on my travels for two simple reasons. Firstly, Google didn't like the fact that I was signing into my account from somewhere strange and so needed to send an SMS to a mobile to check that it was ok, and secondly, there aren't many internet cafes round here. Shock horror, does this mean I'll have to enter the modern age and buy some kind of mobile with internet (everywhere is offering wi-fi)!?

Paul and I started our travels in Amsterdam where we had a night's drinking before jetting off to Tbilisi. Then it was over the border to Armenia, a country that I've long wanted to explore.

What can I say about this place? It's a beautiful, bleak, friendly little country with the most beautiful women in all creation. What do I mean by this? Well, you know that famous person who's famous for being famous with her equally famous for being famous sisters? Well, she's ethnically Armenian. Imagine a country full of the Kardashians, (and I mean, with full figures like the Kardashians), and you're in Armenia!

Everyday Armenian scene...

But if the girls walking the streets are beautiful, then so too are the streets themselves. Yerevan, the capital city, was rebuilt completely between the 1920s-50s and the result is one of the most harmonious cities that I've ever been to. Highlights for me have to be the Cascade art complex and the dancing fountains in Republic Square every evening.

The Cascade

Dancing fountains

As well as the capital, we checked out the Holy See in Ejmiatsin, the home of the ldest Christian church in the world, the Khor Virap Monastery on the slopes of Mt. Ararat, (where Noah's Ark is said to have rested), and a stone circle 6,000 years old.
Khor Virap

Karahunj Stone Circle

Tomorrow though we leave Armenia for Nagorno-Karabakh, another country that isn't a country, carved out of the war of 1994 with Azerbaijan. I've heard there's lots of landmines there so here's hoping this isn't the last update to this blog...

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Friday, 4 April 2014

The Missing Link: Part 3.3: Suceava

world-map romania


Well, the camping didn’t happen last weekend, not that the weather failed us, but instead Son and Heir gets hit by a stomach bug. Oh well, c’est la vie!

However, not even a bug can stop this week’s trip. I’ll be taking a few weeks off posting ‘The Missing Link’ whilst I am off on this year’s big expedition, a trip around Armenia and Georgia. Of course I’ve been to Georgia before in 2010 and Tbilisi where that trip started is where this one shall too, but instead of heading west to Turkey, now I – and a friend – am heading south to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia is a country that has fascinated me for many years now, ever since I taught an Armenian girl at the George Byron School in Bulgaria, whereas Nagorno-Karabakh, well, read my postings on Kosova or Transdniestra, or watch my V-log on the topic and you’ll get why I am so fascinated by countries that aren’t quite countries. Anyway, as ever, there’ll be regular updates on Uncle Travelling Matt so stay tuned.

And in the meantime, let’s check out Suceava in Northern Romania…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue



1.1: Konotop

1.2: Chernobyl and Pripyat

1.3: Kiev

1.4: Kiev to Odessa

1.5: Odessa

1.6: Bolgrad

Moldova and Transdniestra

2.1: Bolgrad to Chisinau

2.2: Chisinau (I)

2.3: Tiraspol and Bender

2.4: Chisinau (II) 


3.1: Iasi (I)

3.2: Iasi (II)

3.3: Suceava

3.4: The Painted Monasteries of Bucovina

3.5: Targu Neamt, Agapia and Sihla

3.6: Suceava to Viseu de Sus

3.7: The Mocanita and Viseu de Sus

3.8: Viseu de Sus to Bucharest

3.9: Bucharest (I)

3.10: Bucharest (II)

My Flickr Album of this trip


Suceava (I)

The journey of one and three-quarter hours from Iaşi to Suceava was rather uneventful, through wide open plains with the occasional sheep grazing on them, a landscape more akin to the vast open spaces of Ukraine than the intimate, almost Mediterranean valley that I’d travelled along from Chişinǎu to Iaşi a couple of days previously.

I felt better too than I deserved to. A German victory couple with a significant quantity of the best Romanian beer should conspire to make a man quite ill and miserable indeed, but they did not and, perversely, I felt fine. Who knows why? Perhaps it was the strong coffee that I grabbed in the station before boarding the train or perhaps it was the station building itself, a glorious Italianate folly modelled after no less an original than the Doge’s Palace in Venice.

ML109 Doge’s Palace + Dacias = Iaşi Railway Station

Suceava also has an incredible rail terminal building but confusingly it is called ‘Iţcani’ rather than ‘Suceava’ and so I almost failed to alight at it.

One reason why Iţcani station could be so named is that it is actually a couple of miles out of Suceava itself in a suburb, (which one presumes is called Iţcani), so I took a taxi to my pre-booked accommodation, Villa Alice, one of a new generation of boutique hotels which have sprung up to meet the needs of the influx of travellers who have floated to the region ever since it was embraced by the EU family.

My room was not ready, the hour still being early, so I left my bags at reception and went out to explore the city. Higgins describes it in the following terms during his visit in 1969:

“Suceava, a town with a number of important buildings of its own which have become lost in industrial confusion. It is a busy and noisy place which carries all the through traffic to Russia and Poland and is in danger of losing all its character. Certainly it has nothing to do with the atmosphere of the fields and woods of Moldavia.”[1]

Now whilst one must take into account that forty-three years have elapsed between his visit and mine, I have to differ. Admittedly too, I had chosen precisely the wrong time to visit as the whole of the centre around Piaţa Unirii was torn up and being remodelled, (although afterwards it would probably be a big improvement), I still say that he was excessively harsh. Yes, there is industry around the edges, but Suceava is nonetheless a rather pleasant place in a low-key way and still very much in touch with the fields and woods of Moldavia since within only a few metres of the chaos of Piaţa Unirii I found myself right in them.

I’d decided to check out Suceava’s castle which lies across a small valley from the town itself. The walk to it was a pleasant one, through a wooded glade although with a steep climb of two hundred and forty-one steps which finished before a ridiculously large statue of that old friend, Ştefan cel Mare. He is there because Suceava had been the capital of Moldavia from 1388 to 1565 and the castle I was about to visit had been the seat of power from which the great man himself had ruled.

Well that and the fact that Ceaușescu liked to build stupidly big statues, particularly if they depicted ancient rulers of Romania who he saw himself as the modern incarnation of.

ML110 Oh no! Another statue!

Having recovered my breath I continued on, but was very soon distracted by the sound of chanting in the forest. Just ahead of me, through the trees, there was an exquisite little wooden church and, it being Sunday morning, there was a Mass in progress. Always one for a bit of spiritual food, I wandered on in and stood at the back. A young priest tended to a small congregation of peasants. The church itself was intimate and cosy with wooden walls, rugs on the floor and hand painted icons. It was as a church should be and, according to Blacker, the Romanians evidently think the same for, as he explained when talking about his local church in the Maramureş:

“The church in Breb was small. God liked small churches. He had after all allowed Constantinople to be destroyed because it had grown too big, or so it was said. Romanians therefore thought it best to build themselves modest churches.”[2]

I could only agree; I love intimate spaces of worship and gain far more from visiting places such as Demir Baba in Bulgaria and the Holy House in Walsingham[3] than any of the great cathedrals no matter how artistically brilliant they may be. But here it was not just the setting and the ambiences, for although I couldn’t understand a word of it, the liturgy itself was exquisite, and I spent over an hour crossing myself, kneeling and immersing myself in it all.

ML111 Inside the wooden church in Suceava’s skansen

After exiting the church, I noticed that it wasn’t the only aged peasant building around. Dotted around the meadow were a variety of traditional Moldavian cottages and a watermill. I realised that I had stumbled into a skansen[4] through the back gate which had been opened to allow people in to attend Mass in the church. Never one to turn down a free lunch, (the guidebook quoted the entrance fee as 4 lei), I wandered around the reconstructed homes of Moldavia’s peasants before exiting through the main gate past confused ticket seller who looked sure that she couldn’t recall actually selling me one of her tickets.

There were crowds milling around outside Suceava Castle, enjoying beers and barbequed meats, but inside it was fairly deserted. The circular fortress which Ştefan cel Mare once ruled from was, if I am perfectly honest, a bit of a disappointment. It was very ruined and hard to visualise how it would have appeared in its heyday although that childhood fascination over clamouring over walls and investigating dark dungeons could still be enjoyed to my heart’s content and restoration works going on might mean that for the next generation, history might come alive a little more easily.

ML112 Suceava Castle: under repair

I returned to the city but by now my late night and early morning coupled with the midday heat were beginning to take their toll. I still had a short time to go before I could enter my room at Villa Alice so I popped into the city’s Ethnographic Museum housed in an 18th century inn and, after perusing the usual collection of antique furniture, folk costumes and farming implements[5] I retired to my little rooftop room for a rejuvenating siesta.

I awoke just after five and headed out to an internet café to catch up with the wider world and update my travel blog. After much searching I found one in the basement of a house. The service was provided by a bored-looking teenager who was far more interested in gaming than actually doing his job and so I was left standing for some time whilst he zapped aliens, but it was cheap and the crap customer service was compensated for the fact that I eventually got chatting to the gaming teenager whose name was Sebastian and whose girlfriend Delia was about to leave for London. Excitedly, he contacted her on Facebook and she asked me a variety of questions on UK living, most of which I was able to answer satisfactorily, before the hour for football fast-approaching, I bid both of them adieu, promising to meet up with Sebastian for a drink on the morrow before I left town.

The match was a hyped-up encounter between Italy and Spain which finished a dull 1-1 draw.[6] Afterwards I searched for somewhere to have my tea, but only McDonalds was open, so McDonalds it was and I sampled the delights of the McBavarian Sausage with mustard, (or something like that), and took away a complimentary Euro 2012 glass. Full of junk food, I then retired to Villa Alice to round off the day by uploading all of my photos to Facebook, thus clearing a little space on my camera’s memory card for the vast amount of photographs that I anticipated taking over the coming days.

Next part: The Painted Monasteries of Bucovina

My Flickr Album of this trip

[1] Travels in the Balkans, p.76

[2] The Enchanted Way, p.37-8

[3] See my travelogues ‘Balkania’ and ‘Nazareth in Norfolk’ respectively

[4] A skansen is a park of reconstructed historical buildings unique to a particular country or region. We have them in the UK, the Avoncroft Museum of Building being one. The name comes from the very first of these which is called Skansen and is in Stockholm. Founded in 1891, I visited it in 2008 and was very impressed.

[5] For an explanation, see the rant about ethnographic museums in my travelogue ‘Albanian Expeditions Part II’.

[6] They later met again in the Final and that match was a little more exciting, with Spain running out worthy 4-0 winners in what was arguably the best performance by a side in a major international football tournament.