A Travellerspoint blog

Georgia

Near-disaster on Day 1

When it rains, it pours...

rain 75 °F

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My reentry into the world of staying in hostels didn't go so well last night. Despite totaling maybe 3 hours sleep over the last two days, I could not get to sleep. I was staying in a 6-bed dorm with 5 other travellers I did not get a chance to meet because I didn't get in till after 1 am. I am an incredibly light sleeper, so the noises of people shuffling through their stuff, going to the restroom and so on kept me from falling asleep. Oh, and did I mention two cat fights outside our balcony and the drunken disturbance down the street? Yeah, so I went into Thursday half a zombie.

I'd like to think that was my alibi for the disaster I mention in the title. Somehow, as I was out wandering the streets of Old Town Tbilisi, I managed to lose my passport. Not misplace, or forget where I left it. No,I dropped in the street somewhere. When I noticed it was missing, I retraced my entire morning route. I returned to the hostel and told them about it. Before calling the police, the hostel worker made me empty my pockets and bags for her. When I checked with the embassy, they confirmed someone had found and reported they would be turning in my passport. They called a couple hours later when they had it. I jumped in a cab and raced to get it. In 72 previous countries, I had ever lost either my passport or wallet. Yikes. I'd better get some sleep tonight or this could be a rough trip!!

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So, what did I do and see in Tblisi today? Mainly, I made travel arrangements like purchasing my ticket to Mestia -- the scenic heart of the Caucasus Mts. In Georgia. I checked out hotels for when Jenny joins me in mid-July, and I picked out places to visit. Definitely a "light" day on sights, but a potential heavy-weight disaster. I met a lot of the other travellers staying here at the hostel. It was fun gettting to know them. Tomorrow, I am out the door early to take a marshrutka (shared minivan taxi) to Akhaltsikhe. And yes, I even learned how to pronounce that mouthful of a name. Georgians love their consonants! So far, my favorite is Mtskheta...5 consonants before the first vowel!

Hopefully, I'll have more sights to report on tomorrow, along with no dazed mindless mishaps...!

Posted by world_wide_mike 07:40 Archived in Georgia Comments (3)

Deep into the Wooded Mountains

Akhaltsikhe and Sapera Monastery

sunny 81 °F

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Today began with my introduction to the main form of public transportation in Georgia - the marshrutka. This is a large van that functions as a bus, going between towns and cities, and even within cities themselves. You don't see Western style buses on the roads much here, but marshrutky (plural of marshrutka) are everywhere.

A quick early morning walk to the metro station, and six stops later, I was outside the main marshrutka station in Tblisi. My guidebook called it "sprawling," and it was that. Not being able to read the Georgian letters - they use a form of Cyrillic, like Russia - I asked around and quickly found my van. The price was less than 14 Georgian Lari, which comes to less than $10 for a 3-hour plus ride.

The scenery steadily became more mountainous as we drove southwest from the capital. About halfway there, we lost the nice, 4-lane divided highway and were reduced to a potholed 2-lane country road. I'd heard Georgian drivers are, well, nutballs behind the wheel. Mine was aggressive, becoming frustrated when he couldn't pass slow, diesel smoke spewing trucks that coughed along ahead of us. I'd made a vow, though, that I would watch the scenery and not stress out about the driving. It worked, and I enjoyed the ride through steadily more mountainous terrain. Ruined castles and towers brooded atop some hills, while on others patches of weathered stone covered in dark green moss peered out from behind the thick coating of trees. I was the only one of a dozen passengers enjoying the view. I was the only traveller to Akhaltsikhe - everyone else appeared to be Georgian locals.

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The word Akhaltsikhe has two of one of my favorite foreign sounds that we don't use in English. Make a hawking sound like you're getting ready to spit. That is what the "kh" sound is in Georgian. Akhaltsikhe is lucky....it gets two,hawking spits in its name! Once in town, I struck out along the main drive looking for one of two hotels I'd picked out from the guidebook's description. This was actually one of the few stops I did not reserve a room over the internet beforehand. I did have to ask directions to find hotel Prestizhi, but was glad I did. For $30, I got a great room with balcony, bathroom, shower - and most importantly, all to myself! Last night in Old Town Hostel in Tblisi, I'd conked out early and slept for about 4 and 1/2 hours. Once I woke up about 3:45 am, I never could get back to sleep. Mister Snorer in the bunk below me had his sleep apnea kick in then, and it woke me up despite my ear plugs. I was definitely looking forward to my own room!

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Next up was my #1 reason for coming here: Sapera Monastery. I cut a deal with a taxi driver to take me up into the hills on dirt tracks for 8 miles and bring me back. I didn't know how bad the road was, so now I understand the 25 lari price better. The scenery was stunning. I savored the forests, alpine meadows, deep river valleys and green hilltops while getting slung back and forth in the back of the taxi. Sapera is halfway up a steep slope, and the stone walls and tile roofs of the monastery seem to rest at peace in its remote forest. The oldest buildings are more than 1,000 years old, it is a gorgeous, serene place. My taxi driver accompanied me the whole way, soaking it in alongside me and pointing out places to take nice photos from. You could go inside two of the churches, and the medieval era frescoes on the walls were stunning. Georgians take their religion seriously, and the sparse handful of others there were lighting candles, crossing themselves and bowing. Sapera's monks seemed cheerful. In fact, they would fit right in at any gaming convention with their unkempt beards and quirky humor. It always cracks me up, too, when a monk pauses to answer their cell phone...!

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Once back, I decided to explore the castle. Akhaltsikhe means "new castle" in Georgian. To give you an idea how old the land is, the castle was built in the 1100's AD. The castle looms over the town on a steep hill. Right now, it is one massive sprawling cot structure site. The government is pouring millions of laris into a huge renovating project. All of the castle buildings and walls are being completely rebuilt to look brand new. There were hundreds of workers cutting stone, driving backhoes and doing every job imaginable. This has got to be the biggest employment source in town, if not the whole region. There is even going to be a reconstructed village at the base of the castle. In about a year or so, this is going to be a cool place to visit! I played nonchalant and wandered in amongst the construction, taking sly photos now and then. My three day beard growth, dark glasses and (I've been told) Georgian features meant that no one stopped me.

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Afterwards, a nap was calling to me. Having less than 8 hours sleep over the last 4 days added up, and I conked out in the hotel room for an hour or so. The rest of the day was spent exploring the town and finding cool stuff to photograph. So far, the only wifi I've found is at a gas station convenience store. Hopefully, I'll find a better spot and upload this. Tomorrow, I'm off to a highly scenic valley chocked full of historic sights. Stay tuned for more updates....

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Posted by world_wide_mike 19:04 Archived in Georgia Comments (2)

Storming the Castle

Can worldwidemike surmount the "impregnable" Tmogvi castle?

sunny 82 °F

So yesterday's experience with the marshrutka must have been the Cadillac of services. Today began with a marshrutka ride to my guesthouse that I would be staying at for the next two days. Everything started out normal, though this van was definitely more drab and dark. I should have known this would be a different experience when our driver made about six stops to pick up merchandise to deliver along his route. Marshrutka drivers are more than just bus drivers - they are entrepreneurs. The more cargo they can ram in to supplement the paying passengers, the more they make. About halfway through the route, as more people and cargo was piled on, I honestly wondered if they ever turned anyone away as full. Or 14 passenger van had at least 24 folks squeezed together with chickens, produce, luggage and even a spare tire! I wasn't the only one concerned about our overloaded state. I noticed one lady cross herself and pray after four more people crammed on.

I made it safely and "kind of" to my destination. I'd booked Tirebi Guesthouse (http://www.tirebiguesthouse.com/) online through a company back in the capital. As it turns out, the guesthouse has no Internet, so this third party handles their booking and communicates with them via phone. They did not want to give me their number, though, and insisted the host would pick me upon the nearby village. They wouldn't give me his phone number, though. They wanted me to call THEM, and then they would call him. I told the I would not have a phone, though,and explained which marshrutka I would be arriving on. So, no surprise that no one was there to pick me up. Fortunately, I'd seen the sign for the turnoff for the guesthouse about a quarter of a mile before we'd pulled into the village. I simply had to backtrack and then hike the two kilometers to the guesthouse.

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I knew it was also a working farm, but I didn't realize it was "out in the sticks." Guesthouse Tirebi has no neighbors and lives by themselves at the foot of the main place I wanted to see: Tmogvi Castle. I was the only guest, too. My room was nice, with a bathroom and shower - no dorm sleeping, woo-hoo! It was fairly clean, too. Farmer Sergei's directions on how to climb up to the cliff top ruins of the castle were disturbingly vague. I assumed the "path" would be easy to find, though and soon geared up for my climb.

The very minimal path disappeared from time to time,but it wasn't until I entered a meadow of thistles, tall grass and rocks that it escaped me completely. I knew Georgia had snakes, and the rock piles worried me. Sure enough, I did the Heeby Jeeby I Just Saw a Snake dance a few times. I almost turned around. But I would have to recross snakeland to do it. I could see the ruins walls and towers looming above me, getting marginally closer. I finally decided that I may have lost THE path (if there ever was one), but I could do my best to make my own way up. I began zig-zagging upwards, slipping on loose rocks or grass from time to time. After what seemed a long time, I was at the base of the walls.

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One problem, though: this castle was reknowned in the middle ages for being impregnable. The high walls on top of a towering hill made it impossible for attackers to seize. So, just how easy would it be for a 49-year-old history teacher to surmount? Having come all this way, I was determined to try. I circled the hilltop, trying a couple routes but being turned back by sheer walls or dense patches of vegetation that screamed "snake" to me. I did breach the outer wall at one point, but it led to yet another sheer wall. Defeated, like it's medieval attackers, I retreated downhill to a pathway I saw cutting through the valley. I followed it to an actual gravel road, and followed its long loop (threading my way through a herd of cows...thinking, "hmmm,those are male cows - I hope I don't get charged by a bull!"). It soon became obvious this was not the original road I walked to the guesthouse on. It was leading me too far past.

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Eventually, I found another trail which led me back to the farm. I sank down on a bench on the covered porch, exhausted. Sergei's wife brought me a glass of tasty fruit juice. I savored it, watching Sergei (who speaks as much English as I do Georgian) and his 10-year-old son, Giorgi (who speaks some English) amble up from the river. Giorgi translated my adventures flor his dad. They asked if I was still interested in visiting Khertsvivi Fortress, and I said I was. They let me rest for about a half hour before Sergei and I Jumped into his SUV for the 15 minute drive.

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Khertsvivi is a 14th century castle built to guard the junction of two rivers in a narrow valley. It has very eastern stylistic influences, including the triangular crennalations. Although it is unguarded and open to the public to roam, it is more complete than the ruined Tmogvi. We walked around it for awhile, climbing towers and poking into rooms. My body was still feeling my earlier climb, so I wasn't into it as much as I'd normally be. We returned to the guesthouse, where I showered and then took a nap. I'm still feeling the sleep deprivation, apparently. Funny thing, though. Both yesterday and today, when I woke up from my nap, I had no idea where I was for about 10 seconds. I guess whatever dreams I was having seemed equally real to my adventures in Georgia.

I finished off the evening with a family-cooked meal of more food than I could eat in several days. The fried potatoes were excellent, as were the fresh cucumbers and tomatoes. There is no internet here, so I'll send this update later (probably from Armenia on Monday). Right now, my body is telling me to stretch out, relax, and catch up on more sleep!

Posted by world_wide_mike 04:54 Archived in Georgia Comments (1)

Cave Men of Georgia

Mickey and Lessie, where are you?

sunny 85 °F

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Lessie, Mickey and Giorgi

The goal for today was to hike to the cave city of Vardzia. The guesthouse owner had promised me his 10-year-old son, Giorgi, to be my guide for the day. Tagging along were two of his dogs, Lessie and Mickey. I wasn't sure it was a great idea for the dogs, seeing as how we'd be climbing through tunnels and visiting churches. Giorgi was insistent, saying the dogs had made the trip many times.

We started early, 7:30 am, and we're soon hiking steadily uphill. I told Giorgi that without him I never would have stayed on the trail as it disappeared and reappeared. We settled into a marching order, the dogs scouting ahead, and Giorgi pointing out sights. One cool one was a hermit's tiny cave. It had a single, carved stone window that looked up at the looming bulk of Tmogvi castle. I pointed out the route I'd taken yesterday in my only partially successful attempt to storm the fortress. Giorgi was somewhat quiet at first,until I got him talking about his dogs. After that, he chattered away excitedly like only a preteen can. In addition to our companions, Giorgi also had a wolf hybrid, Bimi, who was essentially the farm's guardian. Giorgi was most excited about his dog that lived with his grandfather. Rexi is apparently quite the scamp, winning fights against all comers and devouring the neighbor's chickens.

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After about an hour of scrambling up and down hillsides, slipping on loose rocks, the trail veered towards the river. Walking became much easier and the dogs bounded through the tall grass hunting foxes or rabbits. The path was so easy to follow at this point, even a city boy like me could do it. The scenery was simply stunning. The steep hills rise up sharply on both sides from the Mtvari river. The bare green hillsides with only sparse clumps of trees reminded me over and over of Scotland. For the past 20 years I have told people how beautiful that country was. So, it was like deja vu gazing up at the rocky hills as we hiked through the canyon.

An hour or so later, a cliff face pockmarked with holes came into view. We could see the cave city ahead. Vardzia is a monastery complex carved entirely out of rock. It was built in the 12th century by King Giorgi III and his successor, his daughter Queen Tamar. More than 2,000 monks lived, worked and prayed here during its height. Many Georgians consider it the spiritual heart of their church -- kind of a rocky Vatican in caves. Although some monks still live here, the monastery was all but destroyed when Persians seized it in 1551 A.D. Georgia has always been on the Eastern frontier of Christianity, harassed and sometimes subjugated by Turks, Persians and Mongols.

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It took about another hour for us to get to the entrance and make the winding climb up to the caves. We tried to keep the dogs on the other side of the gate, but they simply went around and caught up. I couldn't picture them climbing around in the caves, but Giorgi seemed unfazed. Most of the caves are bare with only black, smoke-stained ceilings. Some had shallow holes that were used to store large, ceramic wine jugs. Others had stone benches or slabs for beds. The highlight was when we got to the cathedral. It had a gorgeous carved, wooden door which was promptly used by one of the monks to shut the dogs out. Inside, it was amazing. Colorful frescoes on the walls could be easily seen in the dim candlelight. The paintings of saints, Jesus and King Giorgi and Queen Tamar were almost 1,0000 years old. Georgians are very devout Christians, and the room was filled with men, women and children lighting candles, crossing themselves and praying. Even the army soldiers who were visiting the caves and had been clowning around earlier grew solemn and respectful.

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Next, we started to worm our way through tunnels and passages. At times, I had to bend almost double to make my way though the rough, white stone passages. We climbed stairs and ladders, and explored the cave system for awhile. We emerged into the open air high above the valley. We could see the rapids of the Mtvari river snaking between the steep hillsides. The sun beat down on the hillsides making them blaze with green light. It was another gorgeous day, and all of us leaned on the rails and enjoyed the view. Giorgi seemed concerned he couldn't see the dogs, but they came running as we began to descend the ramps and left the caves. We rewarded our long trek and our climb with the lunch Giorgi's mom had packed for us. Strangely, he didn't bring water, so I gave him one of the two bottles I'd brought. I also bought him ice cream, even though he seemed like he was hurrying me through the caves at times.

Sergei had recommended that we visit Upper Vardzia afterwards. Giorgi seemed a bit worried about "big dogs" that lived near the nunnery. He let me make the call, so we been the two mile trek on the road leading to it. A half mile short of the nunnery, we passed a farm which erupted in furious barking. Three large dogs trotted growling and woofing towards us. Our two medium sized dogs chose two dramatically different responses. Lessie took off running and one of the farm dogs shot off in pursuit. Mickey stayed by us, but began whining plaintively. Lessie outran her pursuer and circled back around to join us. The other two dogs approached, but never closed as Giorgio and I yelled at them. The people on the farm watched utterly unconcerned, which bothered me a bit.

This incident spooked Giorgi, but there was little else we could do but press on, as the farm dogs eventually stopped stalking us. Giorgi insisted there was an even bigger dog at the nunnery. He wouldn't take my advice to stay back with the dogs while I went on ahead. When we came to the 1,000 year old church, Giorgi shouted to the nuns. One came over and unlocked the church for us, while another older nun began berating Giorgi for bringing dogs. She pantomimed how they had a huge dog that would rip out Lessie and Mickey's throats. She tossed pebbles at the dogs to get them to retreat. It cracked me up to see a bent old nun with small rock totally cowing two active dogs. As we went into church, Lessie and Mickey huddled under a tree.

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When we came out, they were gone. Giorgi said they probably ran down the road. He didn't want to whistle or call for them like usual for fear of the "big dog" (that we still hadn't seen). Once we'd walked a hundred yards or so, he did call for them, but there was no sign of them. As we got further down the road, I asked if we should go back and whistle for them by the nunnery. He said no - they probably went back to Vardzia. It seemed I was more worried than he was. When we got back to Vardzia, still no dogs. In all honesty, this really put a damper on the day for me. I pictured Lessie and Mickey, hiding out in the unfamiliar woods (they'd never been to Upper Vardzia), too afraid to go back down the road because of the farm dogs. I'd been less worried if they were on their own turf, but this was their first time to that place. When we got back to the guesthouse, after a long, footsore trudge back, I was disappointed to see they weren't back. In fact, when I left the next morning, there was still no Lessie or Mickey.

One thing that had shown up, though, were more guests. Yesterday, I was the only visitor. Today, we had three Israeli tourists about my age or older. They were Jews of Georgian ancestry, which led to me experiencing a tradition I'd read about. Sergei joined the guests (myself included) for dinner. He took on the Georgian role of Toastmaster. This man makes long speeches toasting the health of those present and their families. You must not interrupt or talk when he is toasting. This toast is followed regularly with more toasts - to the countries of the guests, to sentimental notions or anything that strikes the Toastmaster's fancy. Shortly, the guests are given opportunities to make toasts. When it was my turn, I asked for a break in tradition. I had one of the others to translate each line after I said it. The gist of it was something like this:

The leaders of the world say bad things about other people of other countries to keep us apart...
The news of the world says things to make us fear visiting other nations...
It is only when we travel that we truly see these things are lies...
It is when we travel we discover that we are really all brothers...
To travel, and to brotherhood!

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Me and Bimi - the wolf dog...look at those eyes! Are they a wolf's eyes oe what?

Posted by world_wide_mike 05:20 Archived in Georgia Comments (1)

A Rainy Night in Georgia

The good and the bad of international travel

rain 90 °F

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So, the attempt to wait out the wee hours of the morning in a 24-hour restaurant was a complete failure. My train from Yerevan had arrived just after midnight, Friday. I knew if I tried to check in to a hotel that I would be charged for the full, previous day. So, my big idea was to hang out in this restaurant that had wireless internet until it was later in the morning. Then, I could swing by my hotel that I hoped would have a room for me (I'd booked Sunday last time I was in Tblisi, but they hadn't responded to my emails to extend it into Saturday, too). So, i really didn't knowing I even had a room.

The restaurant was fine, the Internet was good, and my friends like Steve, Joe, Otis and others did their best to keep me awake as the clock crawled towards 3 and 4 am. I just couldn't take sitting there anymore after 5 am, though. I decided to walk to the hotel and see if they had 24-hour reception and plead my case. It was easy to find, and I wasn't the only one walking the streets at 5 am. There were plenty of partiers making their way home. Everyone had said Tblisi is a safe city, and this was the heart of the tourist district. So, no one bothered me or even gave me as much as a second glance. There were no lights on I the hotel - a small, family-run one - so, I headed towards a tiny park I remembered nearby. I sat on a bench for about an hour before trying again.

This time someone was up, and they let me in. The man at the desk spoke almost no English, but he seemed to recognize my name. He made a point to acknowledge that I would change rooms on Sunday into the one I'd booked for Jenny and I. I gratefully crashed in a bed and slept until about 1030 am. Later on, when I was showered and ready to do some sightseeing, English speakers were manning the desk. I found out they were charging me for the whole previous day, like I'd done so much to avoid. We argued, and they ended up knocking $30 off the rate, which was much more reasonable. Still, it irked me that it was a room they knew they hadn't rented the previous day. Why not let me check in early?

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So, enough about my pinching pennies - or in this case, Georgian Laris. The day was sunny and warm, but I honestly didn't know where I was headed. I had a few things I wanted to do today, so I ambled towards the main square, still half in a sleep-deprived fog. I hadn't made it down to this part of the city on my first brief visit and was surprised how pretty it all was. My impression from the first time was Old Town was very run down and crumbling. This was the spruced up, reconstructed, tourist-friendly part. I noticed the cable cars climbing up towards Nariqala Fortress, and like any history buff, couldn't resist the lure of a cool castle.

The cable car was very slick - air conditioned, smooth, efficient and cheap ($1 or so). Nariqala Fortress looms over the city from a steep hilltop. It's ruins are not that extensive, but enough to poke around for an hour. You can climb the walls, and scramble up hillsides to the fragments of ruined towers. The sun was baking - it was easily 90 degrees. However, the higher you climbed, the more often you were rewarded with a fresh, cooling breeze. It was just the medicine to wake me up out of my stupor. Tblisi looked bright and scenic spread out at my feet, and I took lots of photographs.

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I don't know who had the idea first, but - like Armenia - Georgia also has a "mother" statue guarding the city from atop a hill. Mother Georgia holds a wine goblet welcoming visitors who come peacefully in one hand and a sword in the other, for those who come with ill intent. The statue looks like concrete, but has been carved and painted to resemble steel plating. I was dripping sweat by the time I made my way to the cable car down. I was tempted by the ice cream seller, but figured my fat body was sweating for a reason, and i didn't need to sabotage its efforts to get back in shape! The blast of air conditioning was heavenly, though, as I floated down towards the city.

Next up was purchasing some train tickets for Jenny and I, as well as visiting the Tourist Information Office to answer some more logistical questions. That completed, I headed back to the room for a nice, air conditioned nap. I woke up to the rumble of thunder. Looking at my watch, I saw it was dinner time. I'd already picked out a restaurant earlier, so got myself pulled together and headed downstairs. I decided against the rain jacket, my mind remembering the day's 90 degree heat. I couldn't imagine suffocating in a rain jacket. Of course, the skies let loose a downpour of biblical proportions about 10 minutes after I'd left the hotel. I ducked underneath an overhang by the entrance to an office buildings to wait it out. The wind began to whip and the rain drops crept closer to my feet. I pressed against the glass of the door and felt the latch release. I looked around inside, saw no one, so stepped inside out of the rain.

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Just I case I was breaking office rules, I kept silent and out of sight. Eventually, I heard a chair scrape against the floor and Vasily came around, doubtless drawn by the sound of the driving rain, roaring wind, and the cats and dogs raining down upon the pavement. Outside the glass door, we could see a river rushing down the street. I said hello in Georgian and gestured toward the hurricane outside his door. This was one of the moments that spice up international travel like an unexpected jalapeño. Instead of of ordering me out,Vasily invited me into sit in the office's comfortable chairs. We sat and talked for the next 45 minutes as the rain raged. He had visited the United States twice while in the Georgian army. He apologized for his English - which was fine - and we had a blast, sitting there talking the rainstorm away. Unexpected moments like this, when you connect with someone from another culture, are just as important to travel as soaring castles, serene monasteries and majestic scenery.

I was even more appreciative of Vasily's hospitality when I saw what his job at the "office" was. He was the armory officer, of sorts, for an armed security guard company. His coworkers began to come in, unload their pistols, and turn in the weapons and ammunition to him. If anybody had a reason to order a stranger out into the windswept, rainy streets, it would have been Vasily. Instead, he opened the door and let me witness Georgian hospitality again.

Eventually, the rain died down enough for me to slosh along the irregular, stone pavement to my restaurant. I said my goodbye and thanks to Vasily, and headed out I to the darkness. A bright spot remained inside me. The next time I'm caught in an unexpected downpour, I'll think back to a "rainy night in Georgia," and a stranger who took me in and made my day brighter.

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Posted by world_wide_mike 11:54 Archived in Georgia Tagged town old georgia nariqala tblisi Comments (2)

Day Trip To Gori

A cave city and a leader who belonged in one...

sunny 86 °F

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Cave city of Uplistsikhe

One comparison I'd make between Georgia and Armenia is that Armenia seems more "up to date" and Western. The downtown area of Yerevan is nice, very walk able and has lots of shops and amenities. The Old Town area of Tblisi is more torn up, you have to watch where you're stepping all the time on the uneven and missing pavement, and amenities for travelers are less developed. The case in point was there are a host of competing companies in Armenia offering various excursions to cultural sights far and wide in Armenia. In Georgia, you have to contact a travel agency and set up an expensive, individual tour, or manage on public transport. You can't join affordable, pre-set trips like you can in Armenia.

Which is why I was heading off to the town of Gori in a marshrutka that morning. I had a day to kill, as Jenny's flight wasn't arriving until midnight. I wanted to go to Davit Gareja, an important UNESCO world heritage church and monastery complex. However, at more than $100 for an individual tour, I wasn't buying. In Armenia, Sigrid and I paid less than $40 and joined an 11-hour excursion to three important sights. In Georgia, they just don't have those kind of things set up.

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Countryside around the cave city

So, what was in Gori that made it second choice? Most people think of the museum there to Josef Stalin. That wasn't my primary draw nor my first stop once in Gori. Just outside of town, there is a cave city that was inhabited from prehistoric through medieval times. Where Vardzia was more of a monastic community, Uplistsikhe was a town, in essence. Being a Georgian town, there were churches and chapels, of course. It's focus though was not on religion - but instead on being an ordinary town where some people happen to live in homes dug out of the soft tan-colored sandstone that makes up the hills along the river bank.

Fortunately, the marshrutka driver dropped me off right in front of Gori's Tourist Information Office (across from the Stalin museum). They were incredibly helpful, and arranged a taxi to take me to the site, wait while I explored it, then bring me back for 20 Lari - about $12. I've found that if you can get a local (hotel, tourist office, etc.) to arrange your taxi trip, you get a fair price.

Uplistsikhe was very cool. The site is more spread out than Vardzia was, and even though there were several tour buses worth of people there, I usually explored individual caves or rooms by myself. There are guides if you want them, but I opted not. The map and information boards a the beginning, along with the handful of placards on site, were enough for me. I admit I would likely have learned more with a guide. Just as often, though, I've had them rush me through sites in the past. They almost akways interfere with me losing myself in the history if the place. I've also had them give me less information than was in my guidebook or feed me bogus facts. And since the only thing NOT hit or miss about guides is their price, I usually opt out of having a guide.

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One neat thing was a local group was filming a movie on site that day. They were camped out in one of the really atmospheric caves, with a carved stone column in the center of the room. They brought in props like candles, table, wall hanging, etc. the actors were dressed in medieval costumes and you could see them pacing around prepping themselves for their scene. I ducked my head in to watch one scene and it looked like a neat historical epic. The lead actor, a burly, gray-bearded man who reminded me of Peter Ustinov, was portraying a great Georgian king, I believe. I think it was a community or somewhat amateur production, as many of the actors were very young and their costumes weren't very elaborate. However, I would like to see a subtitled version of it, someday.

My taxi dropped me back off at the tourist office. From there, inset off the climb the hill in the center of town with its medieval castle. It was maybe a 15-minute walk and climb to the top. It was another gorgeous, sunny day. The wind was whipping that day, especially on the edge of hilltops! I climbed around on the walls, patrolled the perimeter of the castle, and looked out over Gori beneath me. Two French tourists visited the castle briefly at the same time, and there were two Georgian policemen on duty up top. Other than that, I had Gori castle to myself. The walls are in partial ruins and you can't climb inside any of the structures, but it had a nice, lonely feel to it. Judging from the empty beer bottles littering the grassy hilltop, most of its visitors we're not tourists, but locals looking for somewhere to kick back.

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My final stop was the much-heralded and way overpriced Stalin Museum. Entrance was more than $10, but it did include a guide. It wasn't compulsory to go with a group, but none of the signs or labels were in English, so I relented. At the beginning there is a piece of puffery that says the museum supposedly looks at both the good (lead USSR to victory over Nazi Germany in WW II) and bad (had, oh, maybe 20 million of his own people put to death) of Stalin. The only things I saw were glorifying him. Here were photos of him as a young Bolshevik revolutionary, there photos of him encouraging the Soviets to persevere in the war. In another room were gifts given to him by other nations in honor of his birthday. No balance was seen at all...unless it was in those Georgian and Russian captions I could not read. Our guide mentioned nothing about gulags, executions by the secret police, or starvation of millions of Russians through forced collectivization of farms. Even the house Stalin was born in is preserved underneath a temple like structure outside the museum. The only part I honestly enjoyed was his armored train he used as a mobile office in WW II.

After the tour, I decided to head to the bus station, and get back to Tblisi. My sense of direction bombed on me and I merrily marched off in the wrong direction for about 15 minutes before I discovered my mistake. I not-so-merrily retraced my steps and found the station, and my marshrutka. On the way out, I'd had to wait 45 minutes before it departed. I got lucky this time and it left 5 minutes after I climbed aboard. I was soon headed back to slightly ragged and run-down Tbilisi. It may not always be pretty, but for tonight it was home.

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Posted by world_wide_mike 10:22 Archived in Georgia Tagged museum castle yerevan stalin tblisi gori uplistsikhe marshrutka Comments (0)

Land of Monks and Winemakers

Not all smooth sailing in Telavi

sunny 90 °F

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The first day in Telavi - Georgia's "wine country" - had not exactly gone smooth. Our hotel did not have our reservation. All the rooms were taken by a Bollywood production that is filming here for a month. Luckily, the desk manager found us a relatively comparable room in a brand new hotel. The main sight we wanted to see today, Batonistsikhe Castle, was closed for renovation. In fact, the whole town is undergoing some serious renovation. All the main streets are torn up, and construction vehicles rumble past all day, blanketing you with dust and diesel smoke. Nevertheless, we poked around town and saw a few things of interest.

The next morning, though, was the heart of our Telavi side trip. We hired a cab (arranged by the same helpful desk manager) to visit six of the region's top sights - monasteries, nunneries, churches and castles. Our driver showed up promptly and we were underway on a warm, sunny day. Our first stop was at a pair of sights, Old and New Shaumta. Old Shaumta is a trio of churches, the oldest from the 400s A.D. All three were of cream colored stone, and relatively small. They were tucked away in a secluded forest and were part of a monastery at one point. Other than one other carload of tourists, we were the only visitors. That same carload was on the same itinerary, and we would bump into them at every stop along the way.

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Down the road was the nunnery, New Shaumta. It was kind of cool, I had to ring this surprisingly loud bell to get one of the nuns to let us through the gate. As we entered the 16th century chapel I heard my two least favorite words when I'm traveling, "No photographs." the reason was the gorgeous frescos covering every foot of the walls and ceiling. The deep blue color and the figures were weathered, but easy to make out. I recognized Gregory the Illuminator, the saint who brought Christianity to the area. Other than the chapel, pretty much the entire place is off limits to visitors. Part of it, I'm sure, is for the privacy of the nuns. Another part was the - you guessed it - reconstruction going on at the site.

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From there, we made our way to my favorite monastery of the day: Ikalto. It was founded in the 500s A.D. by Syrian monks who traveled to Georgia. Tradition has it that they are buried in the main church. The monastery functioned as a university for centuries in Georgia. The ruins of the Academy area dark gray stone, which contrasts with the apricot colored church walls. A wine press and huge, clay amphorae used to store wine are lined up not far from the church. Georgia is known for its wines, and this area has been the heart its wine production since the beginning. All around the monastery complex are one of my favorite trees - tall, thin cypress furs. I love how they look and give any place a classical, Mediterranean feel.

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Our fourth stop was probably the most stunning building I'd seen in Georgia: Alaverdi Cathedral. It is surrounded by medieval stone walls and squat towers. The inside is massive, with huge, soaring ceilings. Traces of frescoes cover nearly the entire inside, some darker and easier to see, others a faint whisper of color on the whitish-gray stone.
This was the type of cathedral that makes your next sore, as you wander around staring upwards at the arches, domes, and decorated stonework. Some of the frescos showed influence from Islamic art, being graceful, geometric patterns in contrasting colors. I overheard a guide pointing Persian style arches to another group. Of course, one bad thing about Alaverdi Cathedral is its "no photography" rule once inside the walls. Rebel that I can be, I did sneak in a picture or two - but not inside. A monk and older lady kept a vigilant eye on us as we wandered around.

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Gremi Castle was on our next and probably most fun stop. You were free to wander around the red brick castle to your heart's content. We climbed towers, explored subterranean passages, admired the view of the countryside, and checked out the interior museum. The castle has one lofty tower and a tall church steeple to give it a two pronged silhouette. As you gazed out over the farmlands and forest surrounding the castle, you could see medieval remnants of churches and watchtowers poking up out of the trees on all sides. All that was missing were trumpet blasts and a column of armored knights clip-clopping into the courtyard.

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We finished off the day with Nekresi Monastery, perched high atop a forest ridge on the edge of the hills surrounding the Telavi valley. You can see it from the distance as a stab of orange on the rolling green hills. It was the only hilltop monastery of the day, so of course, we had to milk that for what it's worth! Our driver dropped us off at the bottom of the hill and pointed out the gate to go through for our climb to the top. It was no dirt pathway, though, but instead a smooth, cobbled stone driveway. We wondered who the lucky ones were that got to drive up. Although it was just under a mile to the monastery, it was a steep ascent, the switchbacks often at staircase height. After we'd gone a ways, a vanload of people chugged by us. The same van passed us going downhill a short time later. Drenched with sweat, we continued to climb, searching out every shady patch of road no matter how small. When the van passed us going uphill, again, we knew we'd missed something. Yes, there were van rides to the top! No one told us, and we didn't see any signs of them when we began our ascent of Everest.

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Eventually, we arrived at the blessed spot...doubly so for us! The collection of stone buildings are mainly from the 800-900s A.D. It was very peaceful there, with gentle breezes sighing through the trees. Far below, farmlands were laid out in patterns of yellow, light and darker green. We explored the buildings, some of which are used for religious art galleries, nowadays. It was a nice way to wrap up the day's sightseeing. The combination of rich, decorated stonework, dark chapels smelling of candle smoke, and a gorgeous panorama of the Telavi valley, seemed to sum up the day. That, and missing the van ride up held true with out not exactly smooth visit to Georgia's wine and monastery country!

Posted by world_wide_mike 11:49 Archived in Georgia Tagged church country castle wine monastery georgia telavi gremi shaumta ikalto alaverdi nekresi Comments (0)

Visual Symphony in Svaneti

Natural and man-made beauty

sunny 85 °F

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View of Svaneti from our flight in

This was going to be the highlight of the trip. I'd been telling people I was going to the "Caucasus mountains nations of Georgia and Armenia." Well, now I was finally heading to the Caucasus mountains themselves. The trip there depended on a 17-seater flight that had a reputation for canceling. You can get there by a combination of overnight train and marshrutka mini-bus, but that takes almost two days of travel. To save time, the idea was to fly up and do the train back.

We took a cab from Telavi to the airport rather than the marshrutka. It is little over an hour, and the price was reasonable ($40 for the two of us). A short time after we arrived, they made an announcement that our flight was delayed three hours. Fearing the worst, I began to make backup plans to get there by ground if it canceled. No need to worry, though, as the cloud cover in Mestia lifted sooner than they guessed. They were checking us in just two hours after they'd announced the delay. Once on board the tiny, twin-engine turboprop (De Haviland 6, for my airplane buff friends), we chatted with the captain. He was Canadian, like the plane, and had been hired by the Georgian government to fly the route. He was very interesting, and had spent much of his life flying polar routes for his company, Ken Borek Air (which is what most of their business was). The flight up was spectacular, as we cruised at only 10,000 feet. We watched the terrain steadily climb upwards until we all began gawking at the jagged, snow-capped peaks the plane was banking around. It was a picturesque way to begin a three scenic days in Svaneti - the name for this region of Georgia.

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Mestia's Svan towers - 12th century defensive fortifications

Neither of us were very thrilled with our guesthouse. Once again, a highly recommended Lonely Planet accommodation was lacking. The room was stale and musty smelling. There were (of course) too many guests for the number of restroom/showers. And the water had a tendency to simply go out. No water to flush the toilet, wash your hands or take a shower. I understand that this is a small town in the Upper Caucasus, and that a certain amount of "roughing it" might be required. So, we decided to stick it out. After all, the host Roza was friendly, helpful and spoke English (apparently the only three qualities needed to secure a LP "highly recommended" rating!

With our delay, we had lost a good chunk of sightseeing time. We adjusted our schedule, deciding to just explore the town today, do our day trip to the UNESCO world heritage village of Ushguli tomorrow, and our hike on our final day. The tourist information office was moderately helpful, but had no useful maps of either Mestia or hiking trails. Mestia is incredibly scenic, and it was great just to wander around the small town. Unfortunately, like Telavi, it is essentially be reconstructed right now. The sound of electric saws, hammering and huge construction vehicles is a constant buzz and occasional roar. I've decided that Georgia is going to be an awesome place to visit in two years! Although we weren't crazy about our room, one advantage of this type of accommodation is you meet and befriend other travelers from all over the world.

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Ushguli, UNESCO World Heritage site

One key meeting was with a Ukrainian couple who agreed to join us on our one-day excursion to Ushguli. The price for the car and driver was "per car," so this cut our cost in half. The drive was along a rutted, muddy "jeep road," and dove deep into the mountains, hugging cliff faces, fording streams and jostling us about in the small jeep like a blender on four wheels. I say "small" because they sent a 4-seater for our trip with four tourists and a driver. Those of us in the back seat were crammed in...I think our rear end width exceeded the seat width!

All of us were awestruck when we arrived in Ushguli. The village has more than 20 Svan towers, and looks straight out of the Middle Ages. The stone towers are three stories tall, and were built by extended families as safe points during enemy raids. They loom up all throughout the town of single story, stone cottages. They are four sided and taper to the top, where they widen out into a fighting platform with a wooden roof. There are no doors on the ground level. Ladders would be removed once all the family and valuables were safely inside. Arrow slits allow them to cover neighbor towers, as well as fight off attackers. As we drove slowly into town, I knew the village would be a sight I would always remember.

Ushguli's setting matches its striking look. The village is nestled amid high hills with an outstanding backdrop of snow-capped mountains. It is reputed to be the highest inhabited village in Europe. A rushing mountain stream races through the village, bordered by colorful Alpine meadows. We spent the first part of our 3 1/2 hour visit finding scenic vantage points to photograph the village. Cows, pigs, chickens and dogs wandered by as we went on to poke our way through Ushguli. We stopped in a couple of family-run museums, including one housed in a Svan tower. We worked our way through Ushguli's lower, middle and upper clusters of buildings. Once beyond the village, we climbed a hill with a majestic view of the snow-capped mountains. The mountains peaked through a wide gap between two, grassy slopes. Far away, we could see cattle grazing on the slopes. Nearer, horses cropped the grass or nuzzled one another. A steady breeze blew across the grassland as we ate a impromptu lunch of Cliff Bar and a bottle of water.

Our time in Ushguli went quickly, and soon were were bouncing our way back to Mestia. For our third day, we had decided to escape the stuffy guesthouse and splurge on the town's nicest hotel. Built on a slope above the main part of Mestia, it did not disappoint. We had a clean, Western style bathroom, balcony, and cozy comfort. Of course, at $100 a night, it should be awesome. We had paid only $12 each for Roza's Guesthouse.

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An easier portion of our Mestia hike

Our plan for the day, once we'd checked in and spread our stuff out in the closet and drawers (our room at Roza's had a closet, but it was full of the family's winter clothes!), was to do some hiking. The destination was a hilltop far above town, marked by an iron cross barely visible from below. The tourist information office and guidebook said it was a four-hour hike, round trip. I have a bad tendency to lose trails, but the directions in the guidebook and Jenny's ability to spot the "blazes" - yellow and white marks on stones and trees kept us on track. It was a very hot, cloudless day. Even in shorts, I was quickly soaked in sweat. The trail was steep - incredibly steep, in some places. Eventually, though, it linked up with a jeep track. From there on, the walking was not only easier but much more scenic.

As we hiked, we'd been catching glimpses of the town spread out beneath us through the trees, as well as majestic mountains. The trees thinned out and we were walking through Swiss-style alpine meadows. More mountains began to appear as we steadily ascended. Almost three hours after we began, we finally trudged the last few yards to the cross. We were wrapped in a gorgeous, 360 degree panorama. On all sides, rocky mountains, glaciers, forest-clad mountains, and meadows bright with flowers encircled us. The view was stunning, and everything I was hoping to see in the Caucasus. Even the persistent flies that had buzzed us for the last hour seemed to disappear. We were left with beauty all around, and just as our legs basked in the rest from climbing, our souls drank in the sight.

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Thinking that nothing would surpass nature's beauty, we were given another gift that evening of man's ability to impress. As we dined on the hotel's terrace, we were able to see the entire spectacle of Mestia's more than 30 Svan towers displayed below us like a necklace of yellow stone. The view from the hotel was superb. It only became better as dusk slowly descended on town. Floodlights blazed out to strike a peach-colored glow from the thousand year old stone sides of the towers. Once again, I knew I was seeing a sight I would always remember. Nighttime gave a new dimension to the beauty of the Svaneti landscape. Somehow, modern electric lights, when combined with medieval stone work and God's age-old landscape created a symphony that struck chords in all who saw it. I'd come to Svaneti hoping it would be the highlight of the trip, and it did not disappoint.

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Posted by world_wide_mike 07:04 Archived in Georgia Tagged georgia caucasus svaneti mestia ushguli Comments (0)

Tblisi and My Taste of Georgia

End of a monthlong trip

sunny 90 °F

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Former Georgian capital of Mtskheta

The journey from Svaneti - high in the Caucasus Mountains - to Tblisi was a long one full of beauty, boredom and frustration. After way more hassle than should have happened, our previously arranged cab ride to the town of Zugdidi was under way. The hotel forgot to arrange it when we requested it, and had trouble finding someone to do it for the agreed upon price the next day. The drive itself was gorgeous, though. For most of it, we paralleled a wide, chalky green river lined with towering limestone cliffs. Beyond the hilltops was the breakaway nation of Abkhazia - formerly part of Georgia. Once in Zugdidi, we had about five hours to kill before our overnight train to Tblisi. We found a restaurant with wifi and seized the opportunity to update our blogs and such. The train ride itself was a perfect example of why the Soviet Union was such an inefficient nation, doomed to fail. Our Soviet-era train was equipped with first class cabins, one of which we'd booked. They had air conditioning, so the windows were designed NOT to open. The only problem was the AC kicked on only at the train's highest speed. And our route was designed to stop every six minutes or so at the next Podunk town. So, the AC rarely kicked on as we were always accelerating from a stop or decelerating for one. Our cabin was a first class sweat box.

Back in Tblisi, we were dragging a bit from lack of sleep in our sleeper compartment. So, we took it easy, seeing the sights of Tblisi. It was a Sunday, so many of the churches we visited had services going on. We also walked through the riverfront park, saw the gilded Presidential Palace on its hill, and walked across the lit up, techno Peace Bridge. We wandered through bits of the Old Town I had not visited on my first stop. We saw the medieval town walls, the funky Clock Tower and more churches - including one from the 500s A.D.

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worldwidemike and his favorite U.S. president

We continued the historical theme with a visit to the State Museum of Georgia. The jewelry and relics from the pre-Greek, Greek and Roman periods were amazing. The displays were all in English, Georgian and Russian. The artistry of the people with gold was exquisite - tiny, gold lions, ram's head bracelets, turtle pendants - all were done with beauty and style. The other part of the museum dealing with the Soviet occupation was really interesting, as well. I had not realized how deliberately the Soviets had set out to destroy Georgian culture. There were copies of Soviet orders to target and eliminate Georgian aristocrats, church leaders, artists, poets, academics - anyone who could preserve, lead or speak for Georgian culture. Truly, as Ronald Reagan once put it (and there is a park bench statue of him in Tblisis), it was an evil empire. I realize those of Russian descent may be offended by this, but the facts in the museum speak for themselves. The world does not call what they did in Georgia genocide, but it is only one step down from what the Armenian Genocide Museum documented in Yerevan.

The next day would be my last in Georgia. Jenny had asked that I save the day trip to Mtskheta until she arrived. The marshrutka ride to this former capital of Georgia was a quick 15 minutes or so. There were a trio of churches or monasteries we wanted to see. The minibus dropped us off right in front of the first one, the nunnery of Samtavro. The main church was built in the 11th century. The nuns meticulously clean and polish it every morning. They scrub the marble floor by putting steel wool on their shoes and buff the stone until it shines. Unlike in some churches I've visited, where the patrons or nuns or monks seem to tolerate your presence at best, the nuns here were different. One old nun found out what language we spoke, then grabbed one of the younger nuns who spoke English and made her translate the story of the church for us. Both were very sweet and seemed genuinely glad we visited. One of the more interesting parts were two stone sarcophagi where the king and queen who built the church were entombed. The carvings on the white stone told the story of their lives and death. Within the walls of the nunnery, there was also a late medieval bell tower and a tiny church built in the 4th century. St. Nino herself is supposedly buried beneath the church.

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Tiny 4th century chapel at Samtavro

Next, we walked to the cathedral in Svetitskhoveli. The walls surrounding it are impressive, with towers and ornately-carved gates. There was a large crowd of tourists, here, unlike at most places I've visited in the Caucasus. The cathedral inside was massive - every bit as soaring as Alaverdi, near Telavi, Georgia. Surprisingly, you were free to take photographs - even of the centuries old frescoes. The decoration inside the church was thrilling, and rivaled the intricate carving on the outside. We circled it from the outside, too - enjoying the peaceful pine trees and grape vineyard.

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Mtskheta's premier attraction, the Cathedral of Svetitskhoveli

For the next part, we needed to hire a taxi. We wanted to visit a picturesque castle ruin on the outskirts of town, a palace for the Greek era and of course, what most people come to Mtskheta for, Jvari monastery. We knew the supposed going rate for Jvari, and decided we'd pay 10 lari more to include the other two sites. Amazingly, that was the same rate our taxi driver proposed, so we were off with none of the normal price haggling. There wasn't a lot to the castle, but it was perched on a hill above town, and hey! It was a castle...who can resist a crumbling castle ruin with a great view?

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We were both surprised and somewhat disappointed by Jvari Monastery. It is billed as one of the top sites of Georgia. Compared to other churches or monasteries I'd visited on this trip, though, it was very small and plain. It's most impressive aspect is its location on a steep hill overlooking the countryside for miles around. But once you're at the monastery itself, it is not that stunning. Jvari is also known for the carvings on the outside of the octagonal building. One wall of those were being restored and was covered by scaffolding. The carvings that were visible, except for one of two angels over the entrance, were very worn and hard to make out. A potbellied monk dozed at the desk selling icons and candles to light in the chapel. He got up for a breath of fresh air as we exited, so I snuck a picture of him contemplating the view.

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Georgian monk at Jvari Monastery

The final trip to the Hellenistic (think Alexander the Great) era palace of Georgia's Iverian kings, was a wonderful surprise. Expecting little more than a field with piles of stone, we found an excellently signposted and explained site. There were two Roman style baths, a temple, palace, burial sarcophagus and more. It stretched out across the hillside opposite from Mtskheta, giving wonderful views of the town as well as Jvari monastery. We were the only ones there, too. No other visitors, no staff manning the site - just us and what was obviously a labor of love for some historian or archeologist.

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The ruins of Amarztsikhe-Bagineti in Mltskheta

Later that evening in Tblisi, we went down to the riverfront park to take some pictures of the city lit up at night. The castle's yellow stone glowed in floodlights, but it had a hard time competing with the gaudier, flashing lights that bedeck the city like a Las Vegas Christmas tree. The peace bridge is a flood of tiny white lights, while a TV tower atop a nearby hill shoots pulsating green laser beams skyward. Tblisi even has a lighted fountain show like Yerevan. We joined the throngs by buying an ice cream cone, and I savored the tang of black currant on the walk back to the hotel.

It was the end of my monthlong journey in Georgia, Armenia and Karabakh. I had seen many amazing sights over the course of the month. Some images, like the 360 degree panorama of mountains and hills in Svaneti, I know will linger for years. The serene monasteries atop hills, the stone Svan towers rising specter like above rustic villages, and the incredible rumpled landscape of the Caucasus, are tastes of the world that I can still savor in my mind like my black currant ice cream.

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Jvari Monastery overlooking the Hellenistic era ruins of a Georgian town

Posted by world_wide_mike 11:14 Archived in Georgia Tagged georgia caucasus mtskheta samtavro svetitskhoveli jvari amarztsikhe-bagineti Comments (0)

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