Friday, 13 September 2019

IMG 3244

We headed up into the mountains today, first stopping at the Jvari monastery (6th century) perched on a hilltop opposite the town of Mtskheta.  We arrived fairly early (before 10:00) but the place was already packed with tourists.  Our guide warned us not to take photos of the candle seller as he had been known to throw people out of the church for taking a photo of him.  Cheryl, however, managed to sneak one in with her phone.

We travelled North on what is known as the Georgian Military Highway which was originally built by the Russians in 1799 and was used to invade and annex Georgia in 1801.  It follows the traditional route used by invaders and traders throughout the ages.  It is around 200 km long and connects Tbilisi and Vladikavkaz (in the North Ossetia region, Russia).

At the upstream end of the Zhinvali reservoir we stopped for our second church visit of the day at the Ananuri fortress complex which contains 2 churches built in the early 17th century.

IMG 1315

Onward and upward we passed the winter ski resort of Gudauri which, like ski resorts the world over, looks pretty tatty when not covered in snow.  Then on to the Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument, built in 1983 to celebrate the bicentennial of the Treaty of Georgievsk and the ongoing “friendship” between Soviet Georgia and Soviet Russia.  It is a great commercial opportunity for the locals as they were out in force with stalls selling trinkets and snacks or tandem paragliding trips (Euro 100 for half an hour apparently).  It was at the monument where we experienced the next annoying trend to sweep the World – drones.  There were half a dozen buzzing about overhead like demented hornets, but at least they were in the control of reasonably proficient adults (males of course) and not children.

The road is very busy with heavy vehicles as it is the main (only) cross border route to Russia and most of the transhipment of goods to Armenia enter Georgia along this route.

IMG 1320

Arriving at our Northernmost point Stepantsminda or Kazbegi (which is only about 22 km from the Russian border) we had our third and final church visit to the Gergeti Trinity church, built in the 14th century, which is very picturesquely perched on a mountain top at 2,170 m.  Despite its isolation, which must be complete in winter, it is the home to a bunch of monks who mumble their way through the day when not admonishing tourists regarding dress protocols.  Apart from its religious purpose, the medieval church used to serve as a hiding place.  During invasions at different times in Georgia’s history precious relics, including Saint Nino’s cross were brought here for safekeeping.

It was still sunny when we arrived at our hotel so we were able to eat a late lunch in the sunshine on the terrace.  At an elevation of over 2,000 m, the sunshine required supplementation with jacket and jumper to provide sufficient warmth.

The hotel did not seem to have a dining room as such (with proper tables and chairs) so we at dinner we ate at a small wobbly side table sitting in plumpy lounge-type chairs which required a degree of contortion worthy of a yogi.  The dinner was good though: chicken in a green plum sauce, grilled vegetables and apple pie to finish.  The wine continues to disappoint.


Saturday, 14 September 2019

We found the dining room at breakfast this morning but whether it was open for dinner last night we shall never know.  The breakfast was good.  We had intended not eating lunches on this tour as we get breakfasts included in our hotel rates but inevitably we feel peckish when we get to our hotel so we succumb.  We have been compensating by sharing courses.

IMG 1323

Our first stop this morning was to an exhibition of felt making (it made a change from churches).  It was to have been “hands on” but, knowing that felt making is a rather tedious process, we opted for just the short demonstration instead.  It was interesting.  They also had a few miscellaneous and related items on display and Cheryl couldn’t resist trying on the Karakul hat which really brought out the Central Asian in her.

On the drive back there seemed to be a lot more traffic on the road than yesterday, perhaps because it was a Saturday.

Our last stop for the day was, you guessed it, a church, or rather the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) in Mtskheta.  This was built in the 11th century and is perhaps the best one we have seen so far as it is well proportioned and hasn’t been messed around with.  It is decorated with a lot of frescoes.  The cathedral is surrounded by a defensive wall built of stone and brick.  The surrounding town has given it a little space to breathe and be admired by way of an encircling plaza.

It is also a popular venue for marriages.  Three, at least, were lined up for today and the wedding parties were out in the cathedral grounds having their photos taken (including drone shots of course).  It seems that weddings are a very big thing in Georgia.  The grooms seem to make more of an effort to get kitted up in traditional costume, complete with long boots, tunics with “bullets”, dagger and cape.  The bride may go for traditional, semi-traditional or “western?”

We are staying at a different hotel in Tbilisi this time, the Museum Hotel.  Not sure where the name comes from as it isn’t near a museum and doesn’t have any artefacts on display.

Our driver is a mature gent and his driving is good.  We would only mention one idiosyncrasy which is his tendency to want to drive faster in towns than on the open road.  He will happily go along for hours doing a comfortable 80 km/h on the open road but when he gets to a town he feels compelled to pass any vehicle in front of his, easily topping 100 km/h.  Fortunately most of our driving is in the country.  We have experienced this in a more extreme form before – in Vietnam, when Clive worked there briefly in 2007, we had a driver who seemed afraid of every buffalo and bicycle out in the country, but when he got to his home town of Hanoi he drove like a maniac.

Traffic in Tbilisi is horrible.  The population is 1.4 million but there seems to be only one road traversing the city along the river and through the centre of the city so it can take ages to get to your hotel.  Georgians are not too bad on the road though; not too much stupid driving or honking and most drivers are pretty considerate and sensible.  Road travel has not been stressful but then it hasn’t been particularly interesting either.

The scenery in the country (with the exception of up in the Caucasus today) is not particularly scenic, the villages are scruffy with lots of rickety little stands selling the speciality of whatever area you happen to be passing through; cheese, honey, fruit, carved wooden things etc.  The towns and the outskirts of the cities are blighted with service stations, junk yards, truck parks etc and there are the remnants of 70 years of Soviet influence: filthy factories that are no longer operating and decrepit municipal buildings.

We have been in Georgia for 7 days so far and visited 11 churches/monasteries – this must be some sort of record.  The names all start to sound the same as well – Bagrati, Gelati, Gergeti – but pay attention, there will be a test on this later. 

© Cheryl & Clive Miller 2019-20