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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)

One Day in the North

Nicosia and "Turkish" Cyprus

overcast 70 °F

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The plan for today was to drive north and cross the border into Turkish Cyprus. Luckily, we'd found what appeared to be a good map the day before in Larnaca. All the tourist agencies seem to either all but deny the existence of North Cyprus, or claim to have no answers to questions about travel there. We woke early because we knew we had a lot to cram into one day. We were headed first to the Greek half of the capital city of Nicosia. It is a divided city, with both countries having their own slice of it, separated by UN troops. The plethora of one-way streets and divided streets made finding a way in challenging, so we opted for a parking lot just shy of the walls.

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Our first stop was the Cyprus Archeological Museum. This is supposed to be one of the best in the country, and it did not disappoint. Lots of artifacts are displayed in glass cases, labeled in both Greek and English. Larger statues and other objects stand free on pedestals. The exhibits cover the history of Cyprus from its earliest stages to about the end of the Roman era. With our early start, we had the museum to ourselves. It was nice to be able to freely wander here and there, picking which displays to linger over. There were so many Bronze Age and Stone Age artifacts, if we tried to read every single word, we would eat up half a day! Just as we got ready to leave, a tour bus disgorged its contents into the museum. The bustling crowd chattering excitedly made me thankful once again for our early start.

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Next, we wandered through the Old Town a bit, visiting the Bishop's Palace, the town cathedral, and the Venetian walls. An obligatory stop at the tourist information office provided us with the location of the checkpoint to drive across into Turkish Cyprus. We retuned to the car, got our maps ready, and headed for the border. The crossing was quick and painless - unless you count the 20 Euro car insurance needed to being a rental across the border. We also snagged another map from a tourist info display while waiting for our passports to be stamped. This ended up being very helpful because its town names matched those on the road signs. The larger map we bought in the south had the Greek names. And you can not always tell which Greek name corresponds with which Turkish one. That is a problem, in general, in Cyprus - both halves. Nicosia, for example, is called both Lefkosa and Nicosia by Greeks. Limassol can also be Lemesos. Some are less obvious than others, but you have to be careful when you're reading signs.

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It took a lot less time than we'd expected to arrive at our first site, which would prove to be one of the best of trip. The castle of St.Hilarion sprawls across hundreds of yards of rocky, forested mountain top. The drive up there was through a "Prohibited Zone," where no stopping or photography was permitted. The reason for that was the unsmiling soldiers guarding oth the UN military post and the Turkish army base. Not really sure what the UN soldiers had to be grim about, though. Cyprus had got to be the easiest posting in the world! No shooting, the sides at peace, and a sunny Mediterranean climate. Would they rather be posted in war-torn jungles of The Congo?

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St. Hilarion is not for the feeble or asthmatic, though. From the moment you arrive, you are climbing upwards, ever upwards. The castle is built in three sections, going higher up towards the mountain peak. The outer walls and gate and watch towers are on the lowest level. The garrison stayed in the second level, above that. Finally, the royal apartments have a stunning panorama at the very top. The castle was begun by the Byzantines, and added to by the Crusaders, then finally abandoned when the Italians and then Turks took over the island. There are so many nooks and crannies to explore -- a watch tower here, the ruins of a Byzantine church there, the shell of a dining hall or a line of battlements. And all of them have incredible views, many of the seaside town of Girne (also called Kyrenia) far below, its white houses framed by the curve of the deep blue sea. This is the type of romantic ruin to wander and daydream.

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We spent a couple hours slowly working our way through the rambling castle grounds. The air became cooler as we climbed, and our breathing became deeper. This was definitely our most strenuous workout of the week. The sky clouded over from time to time as mist rolled ip the slopes -- moist sea air condensing as it rose. St. Hilarion is one of the most stunning settings for a castle that I've ever visited. Panoramas of mountain, sea, and crumbling stone walls cry out to be photographed everywhere you turn.

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Our original plan was to check out some other sites in the area, but we decided to change on the fly. We pointed the car east toward the coast and the ruins of the Ancient Greek city of Salamis. No, not the Salamis of the naval battle of the Greek-Persian Wars -- that is in Greece itself. This is a town with the same name that survived through the Roman era into the Dark Ages, before being abandoned. Most of the ruins are from the Roman era, much of it from when the emperor Constantius rebuilt it after an earthquake...and did what all monarchs love to do -- renamed it after himself!

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Here at Salamis you see how much less the Turkish side is set up to exploit tourism. Although there are signs and maps set up throughout the site, there are almost no barriers of any kind. You were free to go anywhere, climb on anything, and run your fingers along that marble statue or tile floor. It is like stumbling, all alone, upon a lost city in the wilderness. The feeling of immersing yourself in history is so much stronger than it was pacing along the wooden walkways with the crowds at Kourion or Pafos. You enjoy both, yes, but here you get to not only see, but touch, climb on, and get right next to living history. You can't help wondering about the risks of this approach, though. If the north ever saw the tour bus hordes that the south does, would Salamis survive intact? Or would thoughtless visitors pry off pieces of tile flooring, mosaic stones, or damage fragile relics? Without a doubt, I enjoyed seeing Salamis this way much more than the efficiently-delivered and almost antiseptic sites of Kourion and Pafos. I don't think it is sustainable, though. Eventually, as crowds increased, barriers would have to go up, and valuable or fragile items would disappear into museums, rather than sit out under the Mediterranean sun. It is not that the island of Cyprus is off the beaten tourist track, right now. Far from it. However, few Americans do seem to come here. Hordes of Brits come to retire or vacation, along with plenty of German and other European tourists.

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I had waited many years myself to finally make the visit. Both the southern Greek half and northern Turkish half were great. I would have enjoyed more time, of course. Maybe then I could have slowed down a bit more. I knew all five days would be a cram going on, though -- just as our last day in Nicosia and the north. Still, the sights I saw over the entire trip were every bit as fantastic those last ones on our only day in North Cyprus.

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Posted by world_wide_mike 16:12 Archived in Cyprus Tagged st. ruins castle roman greek cyprus nicosia lefkosia hilarion crusaders salamis lusignan Comments (0)

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