• Aoife Lane

Just sharing snapshots from around Cork over the last little while. The leaves are falling and we're unpacking our woollens for the short, cold days ahead. I had a gingerbread latte yesterday and we're eating lots of panettone with lashings of butter. All hail the cooler months!

It's so strange to think that not only were we in lockdown this time last year, it also really affected how we experienced the 2020 Autumn season. I just don't even remember seeing the leaves change and I guess that was because we spent most days inside except for the requisite stupid little walk. This time around though, we're full on basic fall fiends or at least I am! Let the pictures speak for themselves...

Along the Marina walk (we live straight down the opposite bank where you can see the cluster of buildings - about 2.5km on foot)


Fully-fledged spooky season!




The front of our Customs House buildings

In addition to all this leaf peeping (I know, but they really are stunning), we've been making up for lost time with the things that were shut down for so long: grabbing a pint at local pubs, seeing some Irish artists live, catching up on movies that are finally released, and going to the hurling! Speaking from the other side, it was worth the wait.

We had a family Kenny gathering last weekend and loved catching up with and/or meeting cousins for the first time! For Simon, it was a lot like being with the extended Lane-O'Dea clan and I would be lying if I said we didn't miss everyone desperately. We're so grateful to start to have family time here and feel like the city is alive again.


Hoping that this post shares some of the cosiness with you that we're feeling and helps get in the festive spirit xx A&S

Facing the Mardyke walk — there’s a trail through the trees you see across the water and behind the camera is Bachelor’s Quay where my mum grew up







For our final travel stop, we headed further east and south of the Caucasus Mountains to Georgia, the birthplace of wine and home of many, many cute doggos.

Main memory of Kutaisi Airport were the dogs chilling on the tarmac, just like this one, greeting passengers—image from Pixelbay by Svetlbel

We've wanted to visit Georgia for a long time and we were both anxious about making it there without any hiccoughs. It was tricky to find flights that were both direct and not mind-bendingly expensive, yet we very fortunately found during planning that Wizz Air does these direct flights a couple of times a week to Kutaisi. This is pretty common for a bunch of budget European carriers to fly to secondary cities rather than into more expensive capital cities and we were happy to transit from Kutaisi to Tbilisi. I banked that we were technically saving money on accommodation via this route and there's nothing like an overnight transit for building up the arsenal of travel stories, so away we went.


Flying forward in time was a bit of a trip in itself and it was exciting to feel like we were venturing further afield again, but this time south-east to where Europe meets Central Asia. When we realised mid-flight that we were literally catching the midnight plane to Georgia, it caused some seriously underslept, catatonic cackles. Thankfully, we had our own row courtesy of the lovely Wizz Air check-in man and were free to find it far funnier than it really was without disturbing anyone. You can imagine. You can also probably tell based on this anecdote alone that it was one of those fairly short flights that wound up feeling a bit like a long haul based on loopiness alone. The most memorable part was seeing a cool lightning storm mid-flight and, start to finish, the experience with Wizz Air was perfectly fine. Safe to say, we'd heard some horror stories and were bracing for trouble. Luck was on our side!

Kutaisi

Landing in Kutaisi at 4:30am after a red-eye flight made for an inadequate first impression of the place. The airport was quite small and we really only saw the arrivals, departure area and carpark. Our main goal at that point of being awake for 24 hours was simply to safely enter Georgia then travel on to Tbilisi. From what we've read since, Kutaisi is very cool and definitely somewhere we'll aim to experience properly in the future.


Georgia isn't part of the EU so we brought extra documentation to err on the side of caution for safe entry. With sweaty palms as the customs queue was shuffled forward, Simon and I were separated by police who clearly had the border well and truly controlled. The biggest scrutiny we had was Simon being met with a, "OoooOOOoo, Australian!" and we were waved through with zero questioning of our documents. No wuckas mate! After fretting for days about being put into forced quarantine and that we'd be too tired to properly realise what was happening, we'd made it past the first and biggest hurdle for making our way to Tbilisi, our final destination. I know it all sounds a bit ominous, but we were tired, grouchy toddlers trying to juggle epic sheaths of paper while sorting out transit and manage luggage. Extreme highs and lows, this is the travel you don't take pictures of.


From customs, being able to buy a local phone sim from a kiosk in the airport, at 5:30am, was nothing short of a game changer. We also bought bus tickets and loaded up for heading onwards. Kutaisi is about 3 1/2 hrs drive north west of the capital Tbilisi, where we were staying and basing ourselves. We were so close to the end of the journey but also so far.

Onboard the bus, we parked up and more or less dozed nonstop all the way to Tbilisi. Our impressions of the drive, when we weren't asleep, were of a Total Recall landscape (the original Arnie movie, not the newer one) and gargantuan architecture set amid valley after valley. Vast concrete structures, pillars, iron statues...all leftovers from the Soviet era combined with new construction. Georgia is its own culture plus Arabic, Levantine, Slavic, Russian but also e) none of the above specifically. It was a strange and dreamy bus trip that we're still talking about because it was such an otherworldly landscape.


Tbilisi

Our arrival in Tbilisi (previously known as Tiflis) was exhilarating despite our delirium. Wide, sweeping streets interspersed with leafy trees and imposing buildings from all eras. A truly unfamiliar and unique culture and urban environment that defies description of anywhere else we'd been before.


Our lovely Airbnb host Avtandil was kind enough to let us check in early and we had breakfast near Freedom Square before heading across the river to settle in. The appropriate montage here is simply 'Sleeping It Off' and we gave it a red hot Van Gogh to properly get on Tbilisi time. The apartment was super comfortable and had a sweet little balcony to hang out on whenever we were in between gallivants.

Cloud gazing with a cup of tea after allll the sleep

First thoughts on our neighbourhood were pretty mixed and I think a large part of that is due to visiting Milan and Budapest back to back. Tbilisi is certainly a modern city yet it's a melting pot of the kind we'd never experienced before. We were on the left bank of Old Tbilisi near the river and a commercial area with countless restaurants, shops, and bars was just around the corner. With everything nearby, it was still a surprise how residential central Tbilisi felt and people's homes, particularly the older ones, had their own internal courtyards that called to mind both French and Moroccan architecture. It meant we didn't see the same life on the streets once we walked away from the main drag but that made it all the more special to spot cats in windows and kids playing when the main street doors were open.

Garmajobat, cat!

We set out for dinner after the marathon nap and stumbled upon a gorgeous Georgian oasis, Ninia's Garden. This was one of those restaurants that feel like they've naturally bloomed (inadvertent nature metaphor) out of the existing buildings so you might walk past and assume it's just a beautiful home or gallery rather than a spot for food—and wine. Just the sort of place you dream of for your local and somewhere you can stop for a drink or bite with loved ones or by yourself. We decided to give it a crack, and ohhh sweet baby Jesus it was one of the best meals of our lives. Truly a meal we'll always remember.

Our first course of vegetarian starters — cheese, bread, dips — yessss


Phase one of the feast and first taste of Georgian food
Phase two of mains including pork ribs, potatoes and an eggplant dish...gemrieli!

The wine glasses are in the way because this is what happens when you're half cut and attempting to be artsy. But the wine was incredible, so perhaps it deserved showcasing in the photo? The flavours and combinations blew our tiny minds and as our gateway to Georgian cuisine, it's not remotely hyperbolic for me to say it was one of the most delicious meals I've ever had. Also our waiter was Jaqen H'Ghar.

A girl likes the bread? Would a girl like mo' wine?

Walking at night through the dim lights of Tbilisi's streets was a trippy, dreamlike experience. Obviously a country that is recovering from nearly a century of occupation and war, but one now being permitted to grow through the rubble, ruins and oppression. Everything is crooked and overgrown in this meeting of South-Eastern Europe-West Asia and the old Silk Road. It's also beautiful in a raw, classical way that's entirely its own. After dinner on this first night, we made it to the main drag of our neighbourhood and found some baklava from a little Turkish bakery. Walking around people watching, we felt more of the influence of the Arabian Peninsula as well as Turkey and Central Asia, as we slowly adjusted to being somewhere entirely new again.

View from Saarbrucken Bridge on the River Vere

Over the week in Tbilisi, we realised we wanted to dip our toes in this time then return to spend longer in the future to gain the fullest sense of the city. It's not that we didn't get to know our neighbourhood or experience a lot, it's more that there is just so much to Georgian culture and things to see. The seasonal aspect is a big one, too, and it did rain a fair bit while we were there. It forced us to go at a slower pace which I can't complain about. Coffee, wandering and eating lots is immensely enjoyable no matter where you are.


We rambled extensively and namely prioritised experiencing as much Georgian food as we could. We never had a bad Georgian meal served by Georgians. Other cuisines...not so much which is ok because this is just part of life. But don't worry, if you like bread, cheese, and wine, you've come to the right place. Since being back in Cork, we've started researching some Georgian recipes to try at home and I've been immersed in this excellent blog Wander-Lush where the Aussie writer is from Brisbane. Definitely check it out for more information and articles on Georgia including swoon-worthy food writing!

Turkish-style coffee and waiting for a trio of cheese dishes

One particularly rainy morning, we ducked over to a place that Eoin and Sarah recommended called Retro and sampled one of the most iconic dishes of Georgia, katchapuri. One sign I saw said, 'Katchapuri or gym...always katchapuri' and I think that sums just how gloriously rib-sticking this cheesy, buttery, eggy wood-fired bread is. Maybe not, so here's Simon...

Katchapuri—a cheese/butter/bread-stoned odyssey...jacket's off!

After katchapuri and mucho cheese, we gingerly walked it off with a visit to CarreFour but got sidetracked by fireworks...

Just a kids party store selling Satan's Anger

Off-the-shelf pyrotechnics and cheesy bread and wine turn out to be a divine combination for a Friday morning. We walked around some more and then slowly made our way back to the left bank. At this point, we were chatting with some locals and finally deduced something that had confused us until then: night-time restaurant and bar curfews were still in place from 10pm every night (they're still in place at the time of writing).


With language barriers we hadn't figured it out prior to then and it was definitely having a direct impact on our experience of Tbilisi, a city renowned for its vibrant and quirky nightlife. The first few nights, we'd actually been desperately walking and walking for meals only to be told when we got to the place that they were closed. It was bewildering to say the least and we wondered how Google could be so wrong with times. Little did we know...obviously!


As a sidenote here, the curfews due to Covid-19 are still in place like restrictions are in many places that we visited and in fact we're still restricted in Ireland, too. In reality, sometimes it's hard to find the precise restriction information here in Ireland even without a language barrier and these are just the times we're travelling in and living in. The takeaway? Going with the flow was essential on this trip and we did hang at our Airbnb a lot in the nighttimes which we wholeheartedly embraced.

Back in our neighbourhood - the local train station

On our Friday night, we went for a little bar crawl and sampled more delicious Georgian wine. First at a jazz bar with some not-so-chatty company...

Accompanied by a printer. Let's just say he was a "colourful personality"

...then on to a spot called Politika that was like Ric'sthe music, the lads running it, all the staff in raincoats to deal with the evening showers, and yummy wine made by someone's grandad. It was nostalgic and fun and we had a few different bites of Georgian food mixed with some German-style pizza to soak up the drinks.

Foodie happy place at Politika

On our final full day, we prioritised covering as much ground of the north side of Old Tbilisi as we could. We started with lunch—Georgians are pretty late risers and so are we—at Puri Giuliani and had some fresh salads with traditional cheese that was similar to burrata. The restaurant fit-out was more contemporary and we had a great time chatting with their team. We liked it so much we went back for an early breakfast the following morning before flying out to Düsseldorf.

Georgian pesto tomato salad with fresh Sulguni cheese

The northern part of Old Tbilisi is all alleyways up and along hills mixed with the global chains you see in all major cities now (H&M, et al). Street art abounds, picturesque benches offer you the chance to take it all in, and there are little markets everywhere. Some snapshots below.

Unsurprisingly, we wore our shoes out some more then made the call to watch sunset over Tbilisi National Park from a rooftop bar. Margaritas + mountains is always a good idea.

Just glorious. Unpictured: the heavenly heat lamp because any bar with al fresco heating is the MVP

From here, we headed for a rustic BBQ restaurant we'd spotted on our travels run by a Greek and Georgian couple. Please just let this picture of our Greek-Georgian BBQ board do the recapping. Please also note the generous glasses of homemade wine. If only I could conjure that meal right now. We couldn't have asked for a more pleasant and satisfying meal for our last night in Tbilisi. It was the kind of meal that if we'd been with any of you, we would have had infinite wines and sung songs. Just that kind of atmosphere, you know, the best kind.

Smokey Bull Barbecue—the best of Greek and Georgian BBQ right here...and Georgian red wine...of course

After dinner we walked to find a printing place for our various travel documents because airport administration never sleeps. On our way we discovered April 9th Park, with its pretty maze of lights and benches to commemorate the namesake uprising. It imprinted itself in my memory instantly and I imagine it's a very romantic spot. It just felt cinematic and ripe for happenstance.

April 9th Park

On our last morning, we went for breakfast and then made our way north for a final excursion to walk over the Bridge Of Peace. This bridge lights up at night and on this sunny, crisp morning, we were really glad we'd gotten our act together to properly make the most of our last few hours in Tbilisi to see some more of the city. After the walk, we got a cab back to our Airbnb—our Bolt driver, the Georgian Uber service, was watching Sliders in between jobs—then headed to the airport to begin the long journey home.


Here's Simon leaning into the last of our Tbilisi pavement pounding on the Bridge Of Peace:


In Closing...

We adored Tbilisi and cannot wait to get back to see more of Georgia. We know how fortunate we are to have travelled and spent time here, not least considering how things are right now for Georgia with their pandemic recovery plus how things are for the entire world. Our time in Tbilisi is something we'll always treasure and then some.


We still have a couple more blog posts to write from this trip away including talking about what it's like to travel in the EU and on the European continent right now with Covid-19 still around, planning logistics, and also, a little bit more about food!


All our love, always, Aoife & Simon xx

Sunday morning, waiting for breakfast in our last few hours in Tbilisi

Updated: Oct 16, 2021

After Italy, we had two more destinations to look forward to before returning home to life as normal: Budapest, Hungary and Tbilisi, Georgia. At that point, neither of us had been to either country nor to any parts of the Central European and Eastern European region. With little to no idea of what to expect, it felt like we were fully in travel adventure mode as we headed to Bergamo Airport, a different airport again, to catch our Friday afternoon flight north-east to Hungary for the weekend...

Budapest


Arriving in Budapest the first thing we were told was that we didn't need to wear masks anymore—anywhere. Throughout our three days, it felt both normal and extraordinarily surreal (and that's after 20 months of seriously wild stuff, ahem). Some places, like the large Westend Shopping Centre we went to on our first day, felt like scenes straight out of the before times. It felt weird. But hey, we got on with it. You could argue for and against this but it was certainly nice to fully see faces and smile at people again (small upsides).


Our first impressions of Budapest were of rain, which we'd expected thanks to our friendly Airbnb host Peter, who wins the prize for being an all-round legend in every single way. After providing the most fabulously detailed instructions imaginable for transiting from Budapest Ferenc Liszt Airport (love this name for them) into central Pest, we easily made it to our charming 'Cottage In The City'. Legendary Peter met us to check in and he gave us a long list of recommendations for his hometown. We had great chats before letting him go join his family and enjoy their weekend. Praise Peter!



We stayed in the northern part of the Pest side of the city. Again, Aoife's planning wizardry really paid off here, as there was no shortage of great restaurants and everything we could want nearby (Aldi's and Lidl's with vast beer selections for instance because priorities). Our cottage was right on the street but hidden away behind a block so it really felt like a dreamy inner city treehouse and had everything we needed to feel cosy in chilly Budapest. Thank you, Peter!


We spent our first night at a local Hungarian restaurant called Blue Tomato and while we don't have pictures, we devoured an enormous meat board (more on this later). Needless to say, an excellent experience. The following morning we ventured around the corner to another of Peter's café recommendations, Sarki Fuszeres. This parkside nook was everything you could want: leafy surrounds, blankets on the chairs, chill and comforting meals, and bloody great coffee. We honestly loved this neighbourhood spot so much that we made it our temporary 'local' and returned for brunch on Monday, too. We also sourced some Hungarian sausage for Rob J from here and, again, we have heard only good reviews on how their products travel. 10/10 for these cute options in the 'hood! There were many more spots in this suburb, Újlipótvaros, that we liked the look of and we'll delve more deeply into everything we missed when we go back to Hungary.


Still thinking about everything we had at Sarki Fuszeres including that wee pot of mustard!

Every day we basically walked and walked and walked. This is on brand for us but it really did feel like we hit the pavement hard in Budapest. On our first full day, we went for the breakfast above then actually did a ton of shopping admin that we'd been waiting to do while in Europe. One of us got hiking pants (Simon) and one of us spent extensive time in the Lindt shop (Aoife). Success of all kinds was had (both of us) and though going to a shopping centre is something you can do at home, it's also quite fun to go see what's different and observe these normal parts of life for people. After dinner near our Airbnb, we retired for a quiet night. We'd planned a big day of eating and thermal spa soaking for Sunday so resting up in the cottage was a-ok.


On Sunday we walked to breakfast and happened to stumble upon the House Of Parliament, one of Budapest's countless unreal historic buildings, on the banks of the Danube River. Aoife had been trying to navigate us to go via St Stephen's Basilica and this just happened to be a breathtaking miss-turn along the way. I can't imagine what a job in the parliament would be like here if this was your office and transit into work every day. It's just so stately and majestic. Budapest is veritably soaked in history and this particular area had a memorial museum for the 1956 Uprising that we wished we'd been able to visit. This museum, along with many other buildings, museums and sites of cultural and historical significance are all on our list for next time. It's still tricky to go to some of these places with the pandemic and though we did set aside some of our final day for the National Gallery unfortunately, due to our poor planning and various other factors, both the gallery and other landmarks we attempted to go to wound up being closed. (We traversed this same area, Kossuth Lajos Square, again on the Monday and Aoife took this video while we were hunting for a bus ticket machine...)



Another of Peter's excellent recommendations was Szimpla Kert, which translates to 'Ruin Pub' in Hungarian. It's basically a big old commercial complex that was due to be condemned but instead was co-opted by market operators, merchants and publicans who turned it into this:






A lot more seems to go on behind the scenes here. Beyond being a cracking spot for a pint on the weekend, they run an indie cinema, recording studio, and host of other community-centred activities. A vending machine dispensing CDs and tapes from local artists gets a big tick from us! Read more about it here.


It has given rise to others in the area, big and small, with indoor and outdoor areas (or a mix). Subsequently the food and nightlife in the area (Jewish Quarter) was great to wander around in. I can foresee coming back to do a Goulash/Debreciner/BBQ/(insert chosen delicacy) crawl in this area in future. It really has something to offer everyone. I can confidently say I had the best shawarma of my life just outside Szimpla Kert at a Lebanese street food place called Manouche (I'm by no means a connoisseur but it set the bar very high). The following few photos are from around the blocks that make up this neighbourhood.






Budapest is held in high regard for its spa facilities, so of course we had to put this to the test to know for certain and we set aside the full afternoon to adequately assess the offerings. It was off to Rudas Baths for us!


Yes, the fountain on the far side is a nutsack. Pay it no mind.
Cheeky little lap pool...no laps for us though, we were there for the plunge and soaking pools!
We caught sunset from here overlooking the Danube. It was a "pinch yourself" moment. OK, the hot tub was very crowded at the time (embrace the nutsacks).

We put our phones etc. in the lockers, so thanks for https://krisztianbodis.com/hu/fotozas/ and www.rudasfurdo.hu for the photos.


Going from hot to cold spas doesn't ever get old, does it?


One word of advice if you are planning to go here—don't take the watch off unless you're leaving. The plastic watches they give you permit access into the various areas. I'll spare you the confusing story, but suffice to say we got it sorted and continued to enjoy the facilities. Oh, and do BYO towel AND thongs.

In the old Turkish area (pretty octagonal bath above) there was a dear old lady in her 80s hugging the nutsack fountain, and wouldn't give it up for anything or anyone. Its nice to be somewhere where you can be yourself!


In our post-spa haze, we walked back towards Pest in search of dinner...


Getting ready to cross Erzsébet híd (Elizabeth Bridge) during golden hour. The Danube is a fairytale and does make you feel quite schmaltzy waltzy...

...with romance on our minds, which very fittingly and thrillingly we found in the form of a post-spa feast...and then some.


We've received some feedback/heckles about the lack of food photography. Well...get a dog up ya! (below).



We were only in Budapest three days but every meal was exceptional. We found ourselves gravitating towards the carnivorous Hungarian fare like moths to a flame but there was no shortage of vegetarian and vegan options, and just about everything else you could want for. We stuck to meat and loved every minute of it.


Also this good gear below is like a Hungarian doughnut, called a Kurtoskalacs.


Go ahead, try saying it.



The full spiral-tube-thing is usually served on its own, and a half-tube usually comes with ice cream. Aoife opted for the dried raspberry coating because she's a wild thang. Are you ready for the pronunciation? Here it is in a video that's crying out for a trap remix:



Too soon were we dragged away from the sights, sounds and smells of this wonderful city. If we were to try picking nits we'd struggle to come up with even one. Maybe we just got lucky? Perhaps, but we'd both go back in a heartbeat — there's so much to see, so much to eat, and so much to learn. Before signing off from this city that's made its way into our top favourites power rankings, here are some final photos in a slideshow below: a cute little tank engine park we saw on our way to the Sunday market; outside the Grand Budapest Hotel (not really, but it sure is v. accidentally Wes Anderson); a heavenly-looking store; and, tarmac-bound for the midnight plane to Georgia.


Köszönöm, Budapest, we'll be back!



Love, Aoife & Simon xx


Just looking at some property while we're in town.

Next up, Georgia!

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