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.

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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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.

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.

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!

Georgian Milestones…..Did you know?

In this world of “Guinness World Records”  it seems that everyone, everyplace and everything must be a historical milestone.  History measured in firsts, biggest, highest, oldest….etc.  Well, Georgia has it’s fair share of amazing historical “Firsts, highest, oldest and foremosts” to joint the ranks of important “facts” of our world.   Let me name a few –

  • A 1.7-million-year-old skull(really, really old) found during Dmanisi archaeological excavations is the oldest evidence of human habitation in Europe. It proves that there is almost one-million-year gap between Dmanisi and any European early-human site, making Georgia the homeland of the FIRST European.

    754px-Medea_statue_in_Batumi,_Georgia

  • Legendary Jason and the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece – an ancient Greek myth based in Georgia. Numerous gold artifacts have been found in the area and Tim Severin’s recreated voyage of 1984 proved that the story of

    Georgian_wine_and_spirits_factory_in_Telavi,_Georgia

    the Golden Fleece could easily be true, especially considering Georgia’s centuries-old tradition of getting gold particles from

    flowing mountain rivers with the help of the fleece.

  • Grapevines have been cultivated in the fertile valleys of Georgia for about  8000 years. With over 500 varieties of endemic grapes and the world’s first cultivated grapevines, the traditions of viticulture are entwined with the country’s national identity. It is also believed that the word “wine” is of Georgian origin (“gvino” in Georgian).  Gives new meaning to “aged” wines.

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    Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

    UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Georgia boast multiple sites

Ancient Capital of Georgia – Mtskheta Svetitskhoveli Cathedral – 11th century
Jvari Church – 6th century
The Town of Kutaisi – Gelati Monastery – 12th century
Bagrati Cathedral – 11th century
Upper Svaneti – Medieval Watchtowers
Ancient Christian Country

  • The Caucasus Mountains stretch for about 1200km between the Black and the Caspian seas – a natural boundary between Europe and Asia with summits over 5000m, including Mt. Elbrus (5642m) – the highest in Europe.
  • At 2200m Ushguli is the highest settlement in Europe. The medieval Svanetian watchtowers of Ushguli is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
  • The Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park is one of the largest in Europe and the first national park in the Caucasus.

So many notable sites encourages a traveler to spend considerable time just on the historical highlights…yet there is much more to discover in this small country.