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.