Batumi on the Black Sea

 Batumi/Gonio Fortress/Batumi Botanical Gardens

It’s a quick run down to the Georgian/Turkish border.

And…is it a bad omen that the road sign says “Good Luck” (in English no less!) as you are leaving the country?  It does give pause for thought.

The drive through the Batumi neighborhoods on the way down was a bit unsettling as it is very depressing to see the

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grim and gray concrete tenement style housing.  The crazy thing is watching brand new obviously more upscale condos, hotels and apartment housing going in right next to the soviet housing.  It begs the question..”who will buy in that neighborhood?”  And do the city fathers plan on leaving the concrete tenements there after completing the new skyscrapers??? One has to wonder…..

 

The short ride to the Turkish border is another bit of a time-warp.  Many transport trucks are stationed all along the highway, parked in vacant lots, stacked up at the border.  It is obviously a very busy entry and exit portal.  And apparently many Turks travel across the border into Batumi for the casinos.

After a few quick photos we backtrack to the ancient “Gonio Fortress” DSCN5702 which was built by the Romans in 90 BC and is Georgia’s oldest fortress.  The fortress was, for a while, being actively excavated but funds ran out and excavations were halted.  However there is a small museum at the site and a short walk-through produced some interesting facts.  One very significant belief is that the apostle Matthew is buried at the fortress.   However, to date, no additional excavations have been allowed to possibly verify this thought.

We return to Batumi for lunch overlooking the Black Sea and then a short visit to the Botanical Gardens is in order.  These gardens are unique throughout the former Soviet Union as they were designed and created by botanist Andrey Krasnov(1862-1914) who traveled the world studying  multitude of flora.  He decided after careful consideration that this part of the Black Sea coast would be an ideal place for a botanical garden.

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Thus he began the collection of trees and plants from all over the world. It consumes 111 hectares(275 acres) and supports nine specific floral growth regions – Caucasian humid subtropics, East Asia, New Zealand, South America, the Himalayas, Mexico, Australia, and the Mediterranean. You can travel the hillsides of the gardens and follow the various zones from subtropical to alpine flora.    It is springtime and there are multitudes of blooming plants and trees all around seeming to be flourish quite well here on this “Green Cape”.

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Unfortunately it is time to go…we have another long drive today back to Tbilisi and we will be on the road well into the late evening.

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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!

What day is it really….

There is no substitute for a few hours of horizontal snoozing. Although I must admit the delayed reaction factor is quite pronounced. I’m trying to rev up the body and it is slow to respond. The hotel provides an outstanding selection of local dishes as well as a mixture of Euro/Western favorites.  From the looks of this buffet we will not go hungry.

It’s still a bit drippy and downright chilly so already the cold weather clothes are feeling pretty good.
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We’re off to drive around the new town to get our bearings and then we’ll stop for a walk-through the Open Air Museum of Ethnography where about 70 different buildings and homes from around Georgia have been reconstructed.  Some of the houses have been reconstructed to present a living example of the local culture of each region. The local guide gave us a complete description and demonstration of how life would have been in the house. The young woman had a beautiful smile and a great command of the english language.  It was most entertaining and enlightening.

The Georgian people are very proud of their heritage and many skills…but my astute senses have picked upon the fact that one of their premier accomplishments is the production of wine.   Even the outdoor museum displays the tools of ancient wine making.  Not just at the wine makers house…but at several other houses displayed on the hillside.   Hummmm…this bears further investigation.

The concept of time is lost on my body and mind at the moment…but the guide has kindly suggested that we should stop for some lunch.  Ok, here’s where confusion steps in…if we left for the tour around 2pm…and you figure we have been exploring the city for a couple of hours…what time is it really?  I have never been one to turn down an invitation to dine so we head to the restaurant for lunch.

Ready….Set….I don’t think so….GO!

I must confess…it’s been awhile since I have traveled internationally.  Frequent travelers can relate to the almost packed bags standing ready at the call…with a separate set of toiletries and travel clothes that with only a few minor adjustments would suffice for just about anywhere in the world.  Something that I used to do almost every month and never got tired of… has now become a major event.  I feel like this is an entirely new experience.  So much has changed in just a few years.  This upcoming whirlwind tour to the Republic of Georgia has the adrenaline pumping and the questions flying! In order to get ready…maybe a little more background info….

This region of the world has so many legends and tales of antiquity that it’s more like reading a book of ancient explorers.  The countries surrounding Georgia (Eurasia) roll off your tongue like a litany of legends and fairy tales… Azerbaijan,  Armenia, Turkey, Russia….each one evoking visions of storybook characters with exotic sights and scenery.

Jason and the Argonauts, the Odyssey,  and the ancient Kingdom of Colchis heavily intertwined with the Ancient Greek gods long about the Late Bronze Age (15th to 8th century BC) which saw the development of the significant skill in smelting and casting of metals.  This began long before the skill was mastered in Europe.  This area is seriously OLD!

This is where Eastern Europe meets Western Asia and it is a narrow band of territory just slightly larger than the state of West Virginia.  The entire country has only about 4.6 million people.  Our state of South Carolina has 4.6 million inhabitants all by itself!

So, I am almost set….ah but not quite!  The TO DO list has a few more items to be crossed off and then…it’s out the door!

There is such a thrill of adventure in seeking out “foreign” soil, meeting new people and learning of they storied history and struggles.

Do we EVER get it right?

Gentlemen need not worry…Ladies..this is all too familiar for you.  How many times do you ask yourself…

 “What shall I pack for this trip?”  Probably that little sentence jumps to mind every time you get ready to take a trip, right?  Even the smallest little junket requires some wardrobe thoughts.  Some could be more difficult like combining tropic sports with gala banquets…or a warm weather/cool weather destination…even the static business trip demands wardrobe considerations.

So, when one plans to explore an entirely new part of the world…we first ask people that have been there…”What kind of clothing is appropriate?”  Then our next step is to head to the internet to “Google” the destination and see what folks “look like” in pictures…and of course the next most important step is to find out what the WEATHER is going to be.

Now I have not stopped to count the multitude of weather sites on the internet….but invariably no matter how many sites you visit to check out the weather for the upcoming trip, each site will give a different weather “prediction”.  Possibly it will show a string of “warm days” followed, of course, a string of “chilly days”.  Therefore, it is simply a matter of counting out the days until the trip with this formula of warm and chilly days to figure out what the temps will be when you arrive at the destination.  Right?  Really?  If it were only that simple!

I have bounced between 3 or 4 relatively “reliable” weather sites, have asked the “locals” what to expect…and I am still in a tizzy as to what to pack!  Why is this so difficult?

It would probably be equally effective to just throw darts at a clothing chart. Or blindly grab anything and everything in the closet and toss it in the bag.

Travel is my profession and I still don’t get it right!  Therefore, once again, my suitcase will be stuffed with those “just in case” items that will probably never see the light of day and I will manage just fine with a few choice basics……

….wishing once again that I had not brought all this junk along!