End of a monthlong trip
07/21/2012 - 07/23/2012 90 °F
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Jvari Monastery overlooking the Hellenistic era ruins of a Georgian town