Georgia’s Golden Treasures

Our final day in Tbilisi unveils some surprising jewels – one in particular was the Sun.  I figure tomorrow will be a beautiful day as I strike out for home.  Doesn’t it always work that way???

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If you can remember back to our arrival day, we saw a few of the city sites and then traveled to the old capital.  Well today is dedicated to all the hidden gems to be found in this capital city of  Tbilisi.  And I apologize….this is gonna sound like a history lesson but there IS so much history about this little country that I just have to share some of it with you.

To begin with – a visit to the National Museum of Georgia – You could spend days in this museum as it contains an impressive collection of artifacts and riches that date back thousands of years. Fortunately most displays are also in English along with the native Georgian even though a bit of the ancient history might be unfamiliar to the western visitor.  It was established in 2004 and is today a very large and inclusive collection of museums and research centers around the country.

In the National Museum the archaeological treasury contains golden artifacts and jewelry discovered in the various excavations around the country.  These are works of early Georgian(Colkhetian) goldsmiths representing jewelry dating from the 3rd century BC to the 4th century AD.  Colkhetian jewelry such as diadems, temple rings, necklaces, bracelets, etc. date to the 5th-4th centuries BC and were found on territory once part of the “kingdom of Colkheti”, known as Colchis or the “Land of the Golden Fleece” from Greek mythology.

Here are just a few of the amazing golden artifacts on display –

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On a more somber note – a special exhibit in one section of the museum documented the history of  70 brutal years of Soviet occupation and oppression.  Over 25% of the population died at the hands of Soviet occupiers.  It is a very grim reminder of what this nation has endured…and also a testament to their strong character and resiliency.

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From the museum we head out into the streets to explore Tbilisi –

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from the ultra modern Peace Bridge to the ancient buildings of “Old Town”.  The government has invested heavily in the reconstruction of the city – not only the old town but by bringing in modern architecture, expressive sculptures and other forms of art to be displayed around the city.

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As a terminus of the famous Silk Road, Tbilisi has always played a major part in the trading of goods, ideas and cultures. The Silk Road was a trading route that played a significant role in the development of the civilizations of China, the Indian subcontinent, Persia, Europe and Arabia.  The silk road initially connected China with India and Persia.

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Of course China’s exquisite silk goods were the lucrative item but trade extended to many other goods as well as various technologies, religions and philosophies…and unfortunately the bubonic plague. Georgia again in this 21st century is poised and in an advantageous position to facilitate trade between Asia and Europe.

As we navigate the busy and crowded streets we arrive at our lunch destination.  It is a stark contrast to all of our previous dining venues.  Here we are in the heart of the bustling and thriving “new town” and sitting down to lunch in an ultra modern, sleek restaurant featuring not only fabulous Georgian dishes but also a fair assortment of Italian dishes.  Once again, quantity overwhelms us.  But everything is absolutely delicious!

It is a relatively “quick”  lunch as we have an important appointment to keep with the US Ambassador this afternoon. DSCN2464 It is very obvious that the US would like to build and strengthen ties with this well-positioned(strategic) young democracy.  Entry to the Embassy was similar to going through airport security…well, OK a little bit more stringent.  Fortifications were evident with thick bullet-proof glass, massive stone walls, fences and barricades…you get the picture.  We were given a visitor’s pass in exchange for our passport; then escorted into the building and upstairs to the Ambassador’s conference room.

viait with the US Ambassador Ambassador Richard Norland was most gracious and engaging.  It was not all show but definite substance as we exchanged views and strategies for advancing tourism to Georgia. The exchange lasted almost an hour and everyone came away with a sense of accomplishment.

With time so crunched we have only a couple  of hours to repack and get ready for our evening of farewell celebrations.  Shopping time has been nil and the only “treasures” we’ve been able to snag are t-shirts from the embassy and a few Georgian/Russian chocolate bars.  What’s wrong with this picture?? I am sure there are untold trinkets and treasures…but unfortunately that will have to wait for the next time.

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Tonight we celebrate all that is Georgian…from its delectable foods and wines to its enchanting folk music and dancing.  Our hosts have truly outdone themselves this evening.  Our banquet displays a plethora of delectable dishes and the wine flows freely.  Georgian dancers and musicians entertain us throughout the evening.  It is a grand party celebrating  newly minted friendships and a promise of sharing this wonderful land and their enchanting people with everyone back home.

Stay tuned for more…..


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From Mountains Sublime to the Ridiculous (well, sort of)

DSCN5231 Mestia / Batumi  

We arrived into Mestia before dark and were treated to blue skies and a rising “almost” full moon.  Such a nice change of atmosphere as opposed to “wearing” the rain.  The air is crisp and fresh and clear. Night is coming on and the temperature is dropping.  It’s a most spectacular setting with this ancient village nestled deep in a valley below the towering Caucasus Mountains.

This sight would rival any mountain village in Europe or the States.  Take a look at the header on my blog page and you will see a panorama of these mountains. Keep in mind that Russia (Chechnya and  Dagestan) are just over the mountains.  Might want to Google Earth to get your bearings.  This part of our glorious planet is still fairly untouched by the civilized hand, rugged and wild.

DSCN5205It’s an early morning(amidst errant snowflakes) and we’re headed into the village to check out one of the unique defensive towers…called “Svan Towers”.  Meeting up with one of the locals whose family has lived in these towers for generations, the lady is happy to give us a tour of the old(primitive) living quarters and a chance to climb up into the tower.

These towers are synonymous with this region of the country known as “Svanetia”. During the Middle Ages these towers were used for protection as well as communication.  They could signal their neighbors in the valley with fires lit atop the towers. As soon as the next one saw the signal then they would light their fires and the signal would be passed from tower to tower thereby warning/alerting the entire community of impending danger.  Each of these towers is exactly the same style and construction, same dimensions and height.  They each had 4-5 “floors” made of wood and windows at the top for viewing the surrounding valley.

The living quarters could hold upwards of 25 family members in a split-level accommodation of

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cows on the bottom, people on top.

Now I know the Swiss built their houses with a “barn” underneath and somehow that seemed to make sense…but this arrangement seems a bit too personal..no such thing as “personal space” back then.  Those were rough times and any bit of warmth surely helped.

Survival was far more important than having a

DSCN2120stylish interior.  When you consider the hardships these people endured it certainly explains how simple their existence was.

So now for a climb up into the tower.  We are lucky as most towers are not “climbable” since the wooden floors have long since rotted away, but our host has maintained the floors in her tower so we venture forth.

Access is by a very steep set of stairs to a small platform at the door…mind your head OUCH! or you are likely to come away with a nasty knot on top!

Once thru the opening it’s another steep ladder/staircase up to the next level.  There’s not much space in here and you immediately are faced with yet another ladder…too much for me.  I’m DSCN2141sharp…I get the idea with just two levels.

Once I’m down and out…. we’re off for a long day’s ride to the Black Sea resort town of Batumi.  It’s about 267km(166 miles) and about 5.5 hrs away.  The roads are definitely not super highways so 166 miles is a little “longer” than what we are used to back  home.

The trade-off is a lot of interesting sights and scenery along the way including dodging those cows and pigs again.  Along the way a quick stop for lunch at a tiny roadside “cafe”… with tables all set and ready for us….the staples DSCN2185
appear…tomatoes and cucumbers, khachapuri cheese pie and local beer. The cafe overlooked the northern end of the Enguri Reservoir. Everything is delicious and what’s better it was a “small” meal and quick to help us on our way.  I must confess….all this going and going and going had my batteries on low and a recharge was needed…so, I slept for a few miles. Hey, sometimes you just “gotta” do that.

As we made our way down to the coast the topography of the land started to morph into the typical coastal lowlands…more waterways and streams heading to the sea.  Unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate therefore you’ll find no luminous reports of sunny shores and waves crashing on the shoreline.

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It was a grey afternoon and that translated to a fairly monotone landscape.  So, when we saw the skyline of Batumi looming on the horizon it was a bit surreal.

Government entities  and private investors are hard at work trying to transform a glum “soviet-style” cement city into possibly….

“Las Vegas Casinos? or maybe

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Disney World?     Or…?  Well, I’m not quite sure…suffice to say its an amalgamation of many imaginations.

Caverns to Mountain Tops

Promethus Case Beso 4 Prometheus Cave/Mestia

Did I mention it was STILL raining??  Enough already!

This morning it’s a trip into the middle kingdom…or down into a very wet cave.  Encased in our lovely silver conehead ponchos we climb down today….into a marvelous, huge and relatively dry(compared to outside) cave system.

DSCN4962The Georgians have outdone themselves in making this cave called Prometheus accessible to visitors.  There are paved walkways, stairs, mood lighting….everything an impressive cave needs to show off its finest features.  It’s right up there with Carlsbad Caverns if I remember correctly….seems pretty huge and the formations are pretty spectacular in spite of the somewhat overdone lighting effects.

Now here’s the best part… we are suppose to take an exciting boat ride thru the underground river and exit out into the river channel…guess what…oh, you already know?  Yep…too much rain has swollen the river so that we can not exit safely…plus there is a pretty impressive flow to the rushing river.  We are forced to exit by a not-so-spectacular “man-made tunnel”.  This cave is part of the Imerti Cave Protected Area and there seems to be an extensive network of caves all through this part of Georgia.  So if you are a spelunker then pack your bags!DSCN4972

Fortunately it is still raining….if the sun had been shining when we emerged from the cave we would have thought we were missing something!  But….as luck would have it…we are still chasing raindrops as we head out of the Kutaisi area. We had a great stop for lunch in Zugdidi….more great food…I need to do an entry just on the various foods we enjoyed during our adventure…..stay tuned for that one too!

Actually…somewhere along the road on the way to Zugdidi we lost those pesky raindrops and now there is a bit of clearing going on.  I failed to mention that with all of this rain we have been a bit on the chilly side.  Temperatures are hovering between 50-60 f ° during the day and mid 40’s fº at night…give or take a few degrees.  Needless to say my cold weather wardrobe(somewhat limited) is getting a workout.

DSCN5069Our final goal for this day of travel is to the village of Mestia high in the Caucasus Mountains.  For me being a mountain lover…this is the absolute highlight of the trip.  These mountains in fact are bigger, taller, wider…than the Alps.  They are an impressive site.

The road winding up the mountainside and thru the valleys is a narrow two-lane road that is sometimes littered with rocks and boulders.  Probably the rain had something to do with that.  But then there were the errant cows and a small herd  of pigs and piglets to weave around.

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While not watching for road hazards I am completely mesmerized by the scenery whizzing by.  We have a long way to go and cannot daudel along the way.  The drive from the valley past the huge soviet-era dam to the first sighting of the village and its ancient fortress towers is 3+ hours.    And miraculously the rain clouds are departing for the afternoon.

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In the upper alpine valleys we are treated to snowcapped peaks highlighted against blue skies and white puffy clouds.  Nestled in the valley is the ancient village of Mestia.  The fortress towers were built by family groups to live in and defend their lands.  They could see advancing marauders from high atop the towers and then rain(oops) down rocks, hot oil, arrows…whatever it took to ward off the enemy.

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In recent years the Georgian government has pumped a lot of money into developing Mestia as an alpine ski resort village. Since it is early in the season it feels more like a ghost town with all these unfinished and uninhabited buildings lining the streets and square.  They hope to have hotels, shops and restaurants take up residence and lure the tourists.  It has great possibilities and maybe in few years their dreams will come to fruition.  It is truly a spectacular setting.

Our hotel is a “first generation” ski resort hotel….but not the spit and polish one would find in the Alps.  The accommodations are just fine and we are anxious to get out and visit the village before dinner.

There’s an almost full moon rising over the mountain, the alpenglow is settling in over the towers, the cows are sauntering down the road from the high pasture….and the temperature is dropping. Back to the room for more coats!

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A couple of folks in the group struck out after dinner into town to see if they could find some information on a family name…one fellow in the group has roots in this part of the world and he is trying to track down any information about them.

With the aid of the guide as a translator…they visited a home and talked to some locals.

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Apparently his family was not from Mestia but it is thought that they might be from a neighboring village….several phone calls ensued while the lady of the house brought out tea, bread and cheese.  These folks are so hospitable, genuinely friendly and wanted so much to be helpful.

Time will tell if the visit was successful.

From Saints to Sinners – a long road

DSCN4798Uplistsikhe/Gori/Kutaisi  

There are many notable cliff dwellings around the world, however I dare say none are more amazing than the “the lord’s fortress” . – Uplistsikhe – here in central Georgia.  The country can boast several, but the two most stunning examples are Uplistsikhe and Vardzia(in south central Georgia).

This morning we find ourselves driving west from Tbilisi to visit one of the rock-hewn towns.  It’s trying hard to rain so we are contending with low clouds and a brisk wind as we arrive at this UNESCO hopeful.  The site has been listed since 2007 and hopes to be accepted to the illustrious list.  We’re early….but after much cajoling and pleading….we are allowed to enter.  Did I mention a brisk wind?  How about gale-force winds across these hillsides.

DSCN4753The colony is built on a high rocky hill above the Mtkvari River.  These dwellings are dated from the early Iron Age and appear to have been occupied through the late Middle Ages.  Millenia has taken a costly toll to these mountains-victim to the wild winds, rain and a few earthquakes, the caves have eroded or caved in on themselves.  We scramble up the rocks, climb a multitude of steps all to explore the ruins. It’s all I can do to stay on the rocks with this crazy wind…but after an hour or so of exploring and taking pictures we make the precarious climb down.

From here we head back to Gori…home to the infamous Stalin.  His hometown has erected a museum to their “great leader”…but then Georgia has been under the influence of Russia for many centuries.  Even a world leader of his “stature” certainly deserves to be remembered.  Hopefully there will never be another of his magnitude. Our memorable guide “Olga”…no, really, her name was Olga, had the smoothest delivery of facts and figures…all “good” of course…during the entire tour.  She was so smooth it was spooky.

DSCN4831We were able to see and walk into the small house where Stalin was born and walked the length of Stalin’s special train car.  All I could envisions were scenes from Dr. Zhivago. It’s a little hard to imagine why this museum is still here…but even evil history needs to be recorded.

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For some reason the rains held off on our drive this afternoon through the mountains to the western side of Georgia….but then enveloped us as we arrived in Kutaisi.  The town is currently the parliamentary headquarters for Georgia. I say currently because there seems to be discussion afoot regarding moving it back to Tbilisi.  The current president Mikheil Saakashvili established the headquarters here in 2011.

cropped Bagrati CathedralDSCN4896We made a late evening stop at the Bagrati Cathedral. The cathedral was  rebuilt officially on September 16th, 2012 after sustaining heavy damages throughout previous centuries and it’s an amazing amalgamation of modern and ancient architecture.

The light was fading fast as we made the final stroll around the cathedral and then headed into town for …you guessed it….more food!

Georgian Saints and Royalty

 Sighnagi and the Alazany Valley

our view from the chateau in the wine country Chateau MerePossibly the most exciting thing this morning was to look out the window to see the  clouds and rain had lifted out and there were the snow capped Caucasus Mountains towering over the valley.

It was a glorious sight. I had imagined that the mountains would be stunning…but the for real sight was simply spectacular  There were still plenty of clouds and fog swirling around….but at least for a short time we had quite a view.

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Breakfast at the chateau was a family affair and having been fortified with coffee and various breads and cheeses…we were loaded up and on our way to the Tisinaldi Museum which as it turned out was a palace for the royalty of Georgia.

DSCN1642The Prince Alexander Chavchavadze was the son of Georgia’s first ambassador to Russia and godson of Catherine the Great. The life of the estate is colorful with stories of ransomed women and children, lost fortunes and finally Russian nobility enjoying the home and beautiful park-like surroundings.  The Romanoffs would spend summers here away from St. Petersburg and Moscow. The home is now a delightful museum, art gallery and wine tasting in the Tsinandali winery. The rain has been hounding us since our departure from the chateau and with the stunning plastic raincoats we appear to be invaders from a foreign planet…nonetheless we managed to stay relatively dry in our dash between house and van.

DSCN1670DSCN1659Our next visit is to the delightful town of SIGHNAGHI which has recently undergone a government sponsored reconstruction and is quite charming. One of the most noted and revered sights in Georgia is the Bodbe Monastery, a place of pilgrimage because of its association with St. Nino, the 4th c. apostle of Georgia. We found ourselves in the midst of our first true crowd…all on a pilgrimage to the small chapel containing the tomb of the saint.

What is amazing about this city is the defensive wall that is quite extensive and we were able to view it and the stunning Alazani Valley from a Vantage point overlooking the hillside town.

DSCN1648After visiting the Monastery and the defensive wall we headed into the charming town for a wine tasting at the “Pheasant Tears” winery…this small restaurant/winery is quite attractive and could easily pass as a boutique winery in Sonoma…or other hip wine area. DSCN1711As we wandered in we noticed a handsome young man with those dark Georgian eyes wearing a Yankees sweatshirt. Low and behold here is a native American who came over to Georgia to explore the  country, fell in love with the area, started learning about the wine industry and now plans to start up his own winery and make wines according to the ancient ways of the Georgians.  BTW he does has Georgian blood and is connected with the Romanoffs.  It appears he has found his “roots” and is enjoying his new life! In his early twenties with quite an adventure ahead of him.  He conducted our wine tasting and it was great fun to share his new life and passion. The wine was great and we had quite an afternoon of wine, foods and chacha!  Chacha is the local schnapps! It was really hard to leave such a great place with such ambiance…

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A short stroll through the streets was in order to let our legs under us before the drive back to Tbilisi.  We paid our personal respects to the statue of Don Quixote..a small herd of chickens…their chicks and a very mellow kitty…

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unique encounters for a somewhat mellow group of tourists!


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Too much of a good thing!

DSCN1536Wow…this was quite a day and at the moment it is quite a blur.  Just how many churches and wineries can you do in one day?  Well if you leave out lunch and start both the church visit and winery in the first stop…that really helps with the total coverage.  But I must not slight the visits as they were all quite interesting and each a little unique.

We headed east from Tbilisi into the wine region..oh did I mention that the rainy weather was still with us?  The wine region is also known as the Kakheti region and we wanted to try some of the best. Our first stop was the Alaverdi Monastery and here we had to dress in a skirt and use a scarf for the visit. The monastery has a simple church but the monks wine is one of the best in the region.  It is a small winery producing only about 3000 bottles. They took one of their wines to an international wine show and returned with a gold medal.  It’s a bit odd have a wine tasting conducted by a Georgian Orthodox monk…and I in my lovely scarf and wrap around skirt…hopefully there are no photos to make it to the internet…not a pretty sight, but hey, after a few tastes of wine, who cares!

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ODSCN1578ur next stop was at the Gremi castle with it’s lovely little church and museum. But the most interesting stop of the day was at the Khareba winery housed in a huge tunnel dug into the side of the mountain.  If you didn’t know any better you could have been in Sonoma….maybe a little chilly…but definitely first class.  More good wines to enjoy and it was tough to keep track of all the different kinds of grapes and ways of making the wines.  In each place we tasted between 3 and 4 wines.  Usually it was two whites and two reds. Each was unique in its own right.

We are fast approaching dinnertime…so we double back to our hotel which is a wine chateau…Château Mere.  There’s a party going on….an anniversary party and they were having so much fun that we couldn’t help but join in with the celebration.  They were kind enough to share their lovely cake and then outside for fireworks!  All in all it was a great day.

The art of ancient wine making in Georgia is quite interesting and I will share that with you in a later post.

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Georgia’s Capitals…old and new

It’s our first full day of touring and we are off to the ancient capital city of  Mtskheta. Enroute we drive to the top of a hill overlooking the ancient sacred capital and climb up to the church of Jvari perched on a cliff.DSCN1461

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Below us is the old capital town at the confluence of two rivers.. The old town has undergone a tremendous transformation due to the government’s initiative for upgrading various tourist regions for visitors.

They have done an admirable job and these areas are quite interesting.  There are new shops, restaurants, craftsmen demonstrating traditional ways of baking bread. After our visit to the sacred cathedral Sveti-Tskhoveli, the first Christian church to be built in Georgia. It’s reputed to be the place of Georgia’s conversion to Christianity in 337CE.

DSCN1512After lunch in one of the new restaurants near to the cathedral we return to Tbilisi to visit the main cathedral Sioni. This exquisite church contains the famed sacred cross of St. Nino.  It also serves as the seat of the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church.  It was quite a hike up the steps but the view was well worth the exertion. Plus it’s important to work up an appetite for these monsterous meals!!

After a bit of a rest…right!….we head out to the Black Lion Restaurant located in a rustic cellar in the city.  Many of the old houses had these cellars in the olden days when there was no refrigeration to keep their foods cool and to keep them from spoiling. Dinner was delightful and not quite as heavy as lunch.  Of the various dishes the main entrée was a delicious Georgian trout.

After dinner it was back to the hotel to repack for our first foray into the fabled GEORGIAN WINE COUNTRY.