Maybe I shouldn't admit to it but, into my fifties and loving to travel, I am maybe slightly guilty of collecting countries. I will not go to places which do not hold any interest but I do equally welcome the opportunity to add to the list and have been grateful to friends who have told me of their experiences in countries which I had not visited.
So, after San Marino became earlier in May my sixty-third, I took on Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia, all for the first time. Ukraine was a bonus but fundamentally fitted my way of thinking with holidays. Ukrainian Airlines had the only decently-timed flights and they go via Kiev - or should I write Kyiv? - and, as I had not been to Kiev, I was always going to have a couple of days there. It was a way of briefly seeing some of the country and I was grateful for the opportunity.
Actually, the booking of flights on the Ukraine Airlines website was more straightforward than I had expected. I usually have questions and had to fill out a form when one such question came to me. Within hours, a reply had been received and the question answered. One such question actually elicited a telephone call which I was lucky to receive as Mother thought it was another cold call. I felt sorry for the UIA staff member detailed to call me but her English was excellent and I had to chuckle when she introduced herself as Aleksandra, Agent Eight...
At Gatwick, I was told that I was tall so they gave me an exit seat without my having to ask which was nice. I had printed all my boarding passes in advance to alleviate any potential hassle at the airports and everything went smoothly.
The stamping of passports was easy at Kiev and, although the bags were a little slow, I had booked a hotel taxi for ease. I had cancelled one hotel reservation as they would not respond to such requests and rebooked myself into the irishotels near the main Railway Station. They too had answered all of my many questions quickly and informatively and their staff, including another Aleksandra, were unfailingly helpful and friendly. I had booked a simple room without window - well, lift up the blinds and a view of Venice sprang out: I didn't quite understand why, with a window in the room, they blocked out the view with a photo of Venice but it didn't matter - and it was absolutely fine.
A bar serves meals and drinks and I ate some wonderful lamb after my fairly late arrival on the first day. The £2 breakfast later came with porridge, ham, cheese, eggs, bread, croissant and hot drinks. It is set on one floor of a comparatively large building but turned out to be an excellent choice.
My one full day in Kiev was fascinating. I used the metro - the Kyiv Rapid Transit which may not have been the most modern but the escalators were certainly rapid and very deep - and managed to buy six coupons by tendering almost exactly the correct money and lifting up six fingers to the unsmiling lady behind the counter. It worked. The Metro was in a building close to the very grand Railway Station although my arrival coincided with police evicting a drunk.
I went to Independence Square (where I had initially booked into) and it was most impressive and enjoyable (once the street vendors had been dismissed). Many Eastern European cities have similarly grand squares and this one led on to the impressive St. Sophia's Cathedral and St.Michael's Church where I later attended part of a service which appears to have been Eastern Orthodox. The many churches and cathedrals in Kiev are beautiful and I had hoped to go inside St. Andrew's (which sits on a small hill) but it is currently closed for restoration.
I looked for the Motherland Monument and World War II Museum which depicts Ukraine's heroics during this period. I suspected that I had got lost again but actually I was venturing in the right direction but first came across the highly impressive Kyevo Pecherska Larva whose monastery houses the well-known caves where apparently bodies are housed. I didn't test this assertion but the large area and its churches were one of the most impressive sights I visited in Kiev.
From there, the Motherland Monument rose imperiously above, well, everything else in Kiev really. Yes, it is a monolith but more pleasing on the eye than the typically Eastern European, black stone depictions of soldiers which liberally adorned the area around the monument. Tanks and guns were also housed in this park area.
I went back in the evening to see Independence Square lit up and my full day in Kiev had been memorable and enjoyable. I would rate it right up there with the best cities which I have visited.
The same taxi driver took me back to Boryspil Airport from where I flew to Tbilisi. No such luck with an extra legroom seat and frankly the seat I had simply didn't have enough space for me to move about so I had to stick my legs into the aisle. I realise that I can pay for a seat with more legroom but nonetheless I find it a cheek and penalty for simply being tall. Anyway, there is much to recommend about Ukraine Airlines and the flight arrived in on time which is always welcome. The view of the mountains coming into Tbilisi was impressive too.
Immigration was easy and I now have a Georgian stamp to add to the Ukrainian one from two days earlier. I had ordered a taxi by the hotel and the driver had me at The Old Key Hotel, another place which was on one floor, very quickly. I had a very decent room and all staff were very welcoming and friendly. Indeed, I was surprised at how well so many people speak English and communication was rarely difficult. That said, I tried to pick up a few words of Georgian but usually uttered the wrong one. My room had a balcony overlooking the busy Agmaneshebeli Avenue which could at times be noisy and walking along there was never dull with plenty of people handing out reputable and probably not so reputable cards touting for business.
A friend in Dubai had recommended Tbilisi hence part of the reason for going. It was wonderful too and I was pleased to have two full days there. I did the tourist bit by visiting the sulphur baths in the old city. I expected to make a reservation on one day for the next but, as it happened, the time I ideally wanted was quiet, so I was back three hours later. It was quite a novel experience having a private room with bath to myself for the equivalent of £12 for an hour. I had read of people saying that the women who made the reservations were grumpy etc but, whatever, all staff at Chreli Abano, one easy to find on the internet, were anything but. I did feel better after my dip but it didn't stop me going down with a cold shortly afterwards...
I also visited the Holy Trinity Cathedral which was built comparatively recently and dominates the skyline looking from the Old City. Stepped, it also offers wonderful views of the city. I found Tbilisi appealing where the old blends in nicely with the new (bridges and a high-rise building).
I bought a Metro Card and toddled between the same stations on various occasions. The trains are more modern than those in Kiev but structurally Kiev's stations are more resplendent. Both seemed efficient and busy.
I also took the cable-car up to the Narakila Fortress which again offered terrific views of the city. Mother Georgia, another monolith in similar fashion to Kiev's Motherland Monument, is also another monument up there which can be seen from some distance away.
I had a Thai massage in the hope that it would alleviate some elbow pain picked up through carrying too many heavy suitcases recently. It would probably have been cheaper to have bought another suitcase with wheels which work but, whatever, it seems to have done some good.
Moving on from Tbilisi was easier than I had anticipated. The normal way is to go by minibus and most seem to go from the less convenient Ortachala or main bus station. I tried my luck the day before at the Avlabari Metro Station and, within minutes, had not only found a minibus but made a reservation. Asked to arrive by 8:40 a.m., I was there earlier in the hope of securing the best possible seat, failed as people were already inside but five minutes later, we were on our way much earlier than the scheduled 9 a.m. departure which was good.
Independence Square, Kiev

St. Andrew’s Church, Kiev

Motherland Monument, Kiev

I loved Kiev too

Tbilisi seen from the cable-car

Tbilisi Old City

Tbilisi Holy Trinity Cathedral

Sulfur baths area, Tbilisi Tbilisi theatre Khor Virap Monastery near Yerevan The Cascade, Yerevan Yerevan at night
An Armenian girl spoke to me and said that she was travelling with her granny. I was a bit perplexed when Theresa May was brought into the conversation and was asked my thoughts on our prime minister. Having said my bit, I looked over to see Granny Armenia with lips pursed, furrowed brow and a big thumbs down. I felt it prudent to move the conversation into calmer waters... Actually, the Armenian roads and drivers were so poor that, combined with windy roads, I didn't feel 100% so was pleased to get over any potential sickness ( which happened to someone behind me).
Passing through the border was actually fine and not as time-consuming as I had been led to believe. The Georgian immigration people joked and, when I went through the Armenian side, I felt it best to say hello although I realised that the word I used was Georgian. This was pointed out to me, we had a laugh about it and the official seemed more interested in giving me language lessons. We left on a happy note having had a laugh about it.
I rather fell out initially with a taxi driver after reaching the bus station. Given a price, I told him that he was too expensive which affronted him as he knew that it was my first visit to his country. How would I know the fares? Well, I do my research and doubt that I am the only person on the planet to be given an initial fare which is incorrect. He reduced it but became stroppy when I said that I needed to change money if he still wanted his inflated fare. Anyway, after doing this, we parted amicably.
I had booked a Junior Suite at the S D David Hotel near Sasuntsi Davit Station. This might sound an extravagance but it was actually one pound more than a standard room and offered potential views over Mount Ararat. The room was vast and the staff very friendly. They did suffer from power cuts but it was a nice place to stay and reasonably convenient.
I went to the Khor Virap Monastery about 45 minutes drive from Yerevan. The hotel had asked quite a lot for the taxi so I found one much cheaper behind the Sasunti Davit Station. A motley crew of taxi drivers gave me some information and we agreed that I would show up the next day and one would take me there. It turned out to be the one who spoke most English and, the price agreed, off we went. It was only along the way when I wondered if I was in an official taxi.
I was told - with a twinkle in the diver's eye - that I was in a Russian Mercedes AKA a beaten-up Lada... Well, whatever my forgivings, the driver got me there and back safely and there was no threat which I had possibly imagined initially. I suspect that he was just someone purporting to be a taxi driver who was simply after a decent amount of money. I imagine that we were both satisfied when we arrived back in Yerevan.
The monastery is one of the main tourist highlights and, on a good day, apparently offers spectacular views of Mount Ararat. I did not have one such day, sadly. Anyway, set on a hill, it was an odd place especially as it was partly shrouded in mist on that day. There were plenty of other tourists taking in the church and views and I was pleased to have made the visit although the weather was a disappointment.
I spent the rest of the day in Yerevan. I enjoyed Kiev and Tbilisi more but am pleased to have been into Armenia. The people were friendly but there is still a very Soviet feel to the buildings. Maybe the weather didn't help and, when I returned in the evening and saw Republic Square lit up (despite a terrific downpour), it felt more appealing. Some of the buildings felt sombre but the Cascade, a vast stairway, was impressive and gave nice views over the city.
I ate in the evening at one of the Karas National Food Chain restaurants and very nice it was too. These restaurants came over well and a steak and chips with a glass of red wine cost just £5 in very acceptable surroundings.
I settled for some last-minute shopping in Yerevan the following morning before making my way to the airport for the return flight to Kiev. I must say that, for such a cheap country, the airport prices came as something of a shock and, with £10 which I essentially had to spend or lose as Armenian Drams can only be exchanged in their country apparently and I needed to have done this before Immigration, I bought some chocolates but the money didn't go very far at all.
The flight was on time but, having been told that I could not be offered a legroom seat, I went to the back of the plane and had a row to myself. After changing some money into Ukrainian Hryvnia - a tip here at Kiev is not to assume that all bureaux de change offer the same rate: one offered 30 to the pound, the other 35 and, in changing £80 over the two visits, the difference bought me two decent meals! - I was met by the taxi driver and taken to the Galant Hotel near Kiev's Boryspil Airport.
This place was again decent with a homely room and very pleasant restaurant. It was beginning to become cold outside so I stayed in. On my return home, I was a little perplexed to be asked whether I had come back safely. I may only have spent that night in Kiev and had not seen the news so was unaware of the disquiet between Ukraine and Russia. Whatever, Kiev had been a lovely city and I was very pleased to have seen it the week earlier.
Despite taxiing out on time, the flight was delayed because the wings had to be de-iced on the way to the runway. It seemed a bit odd that it could not have been done before we left the gate but hey ho. Circling - or should I say being put in a holding pattern - around Gatwick meant that I just missed the once-hourly train back to Reading by the skin of my teeth having expected to make it comfortably but, all things considered, it had been a thoroughly enjoyable holiday.