Day 41 Tuesday 4 July 2017 Yerevan to Vardzia
Border Crossing Armenia / Georgia 255 km
- It's time to leave Armenia. We have learnt so much about this fascinating country which in terms of current size and wealth, is a fraction of its historic self. As the first Nation in the world to convert to Christianity, it is also significant to our European culture & heritage.
- Rich & famous Armenians do not tend to live here. They belong to the extensive Armenian diaspora. There are nearly 1 million living in Los Angeles alone. St Petersburg is another significant base. Cher, Charles Aznavour, Alain Prost, Andre Agassi, Anoushka, and the Kardashian clan all have Armenian blood.
- The truck has been idle for 3 days. As we climb back in and start her up, SG gets that feeling of of impending adventure. New places, different food, climate, scenery & people. On our truck trips we experience such sentiment every few days, sometimes every day. It is deliciously addictive.
- It's 8.45 a.m. and the rush hour has begun. We generally try and avoid them in big cities whenever possible. Several policemen are overriding traffic lights on the major junction that lies directly below the Ararat Brandy factory. Our experience is that human intervention of this kind is rarely successful - it just makes congestion even worse!
- Anyway Yerevan is a relatively small capital city and we are soon headed out of town towards Gyumri, Armenia's second city and to the Georgian border beyond at a place called Bavra.
- A dual carriageway lasts until Astarak and then the roads revert to their usual inferior quality of potholes and subsidence. The going is slow and not so smooth.
- Gyumri is not worth stopping for. Even LP gets that right! The crimes of intellectual copyright persist - we see, and not for the first time in Armenia, a petrol station brand called Chevroni with a prancing Ferrari horse as its logo. Essentially a copyright hybrid.
- In all but the larger towns, gas pipes in urban areas of Armenia are exposed above ground as in Georgia. It must be a Soviet way of doing things.
- Storks come to Armenia too. We are passing by an area dotted with small lakes which naturally provides instant take away food. We never tire of seeing these magnificent birds. The nests are currently looking a bit overcrowded. Their young are growing rapidly and must be near to take off themselves.
- The scenery of frontier Armenia is gorgeous; wide open vistas of high altitude pastureland ( 2100m ) and wild flowers. In the distance, mountain summits still have remnants of snow.
- It is a poor agricultural area. You can always tell. Drying cow dung to provide fuel is part of the local economy. We are not sure whether it smells of manure when being burnt but during the drying process it certainly does.
- The Bavra border point between Armenia & Georgia ( 2100 m ) is the smallest and most basic that we have encountered on this trip. There's certainly no duty free. Yet. There's a chance that our crossing will be amazingly quick because there are no queues. But equally, there is a possibility that the border police have such a huge amount of time on their hands, that a middle aged couple in their own Landcruiser truck becomes an oddity worth investigating.
- Driver & passenger must separate. Remember we are juggling passports to avoid using a passport into Turkey that carries an Armenian entry / exit stamp. Our Georgian entry stamp must therefore go into the Turkey neutral passport.
- The Georgian border official is at first confused why SG has no exit stamp from Armenia evident in the passport that she hands over. He calls a supervisor and then another. At this point SG decides to volunteer the fact she has 2 passports, not always seen as a positive thing at tricky borders. In the end they oblige and stamp the entry visa into the passport we will use to enter back into Turkey. Confused? Well, just be aware, that unless relationships improve dramatically, you must be careful when travelling between Turkey and the Caucasus nations. It is too easy to offend.
- Apart from the stamp issue, our crossing is quick. Times are changing, at least on the Georgian side. Impressive new facilities are being built and some time soon you'll even be able to do some duty free shopping. Currently the Armenian side is lagging seriously behind.
- We are welcomed into Georgia by the national flag and that of the EU. Affiliation with the EU is very important to Georgia.
- Now we drive towards Achalkalaki and Vardzia beyond. Through a narrow gorge, beside the River Paravani we find a picnic stop beside an unusual bridge. ( See photo ).
- A bit further on, high above the confluence of Rivers Paravani and Mtkvari ( the latter flows through Tbilisi) stands Khertvisi Fortress, ( 10-14 C). Impressive from a distance. Whilst SG gets out to take photo, AG plays a mean trick. Fortunately SG spies his manoeuvre out of the corner of her eye and is forewarned. Although she has no idea of what he is up to. SG hates snakes and cannot bear to touch them. Neither of us have ever seen the like ever before. Enough clues - see photo.
- Just after the fortress we turn off the main road down Vardzia valley. We pass the village of Tmogvi and the ruins of its castle high up on the craggy hill on the opposite side of the river. Incidentally, there are numerous guest houses in this area that would also be convenient for exploring the monastery cave village of Vardzia.
- We are staying further down the valley that leads nowhere. Our hotel, the Vardzia Resort, is first class in terms of location with views across the valley. The lobby furnishings and rooms are comfortable & stylish. However service and food are very poor. It's a real disappointment because there are few alternatives. The menu really does not inspire and we eat out of necessity rather than pleasure. Fortunately we survive. And its location is superb.
- Were it not for temperatures touching 40 in the afternoon sun, we would walk the 4km or so from the hotel to the Vardzia Cave Monastery. Unsurprisingly we don't. In any case we first drive an additional 3 km up the valley to the Vardzia nunnery which is still active. AG is curious why there is an odd job man parked up in the compound.
- One of the nuns kindly opens up the tiny church for us. Ancient inside, with a modern roof and old carved pillars at the entrance, there are very faded wall paintings inside. It is 6 p.m. This seems to be a special hour in the life of a priest, monk or nun. As in Udabno at the same hour, the nun lights all the candles within the tiny church and stands beside a lectern with a large bible. She starts to chant her prayers - sadly not as impressively as we have heard elsewhere . But that does not detract from the beauty of our experience. As 6 o clock passes, one by one, more nuns come to join her in the evening prayers.
- We leave them to it and head down the road to the cave monastery proper. It shuts at 7 pm. Our plan is to climb up now in the relative cool ( no longer in full sun ) and then return the following morning to take a photo of the caves bathed in sunshine.
- Vardzia is the third cave monastery of our trip. It is the biggest but the oldest. You can come to Vardzia on a day trip from Akhaltsikhe ( our entry point to Georgia, Day 18 / June 11 ) or you can choose to linger a bit longer and enjoy this gorgeous valley after the day trippers have left. In cooler weather there will be some lovely hiking.
- Vardzia began life as a place of fortification built in the 12C by King Giorgi 3. His daughter, the revered Queen Tamar established a monastery here. It grew into a holy city that accommodated around 2000 monks. It became known as a spiritual bastion of Georgia and Christendom's eastern frontier. The cave dwellings extend over 13 different levels and are interconnected through a series of tunnels & stone steps. Although we do not count to confirm, there are meant to be over 400 rooms, 13 churches & 25 wine cellars. As has been mentioned before, monks enjoyed their wine!
- At the heart of the complex is the Church of Assumption - the facade has disappeared, probably in the 1283 earthquake. But the interior, dug deep into the cave, is still remarkable. See photos. It is presumed that the frescoes, which portray many New Testament scenes, were painted at the time of its construction 1184-6. To the left of the entrance is another smaller door that leads to a tunnel and interior flights of steps. Walk up & along and you will emerge well above the church, in another part of the monastery neighbourhood.
- At Vardzia there is obvious work in progress to make the site more accessible and safer for visitors. We are a bit concerned that when finished, this may detract from its original beauty. There seems to be a lot of concrete being used and a crude renovation of stone.
- Signage is poor and audio guides non existent. It may be worth hiring a guide if this is your first & only visit to a monastery cave.
- Another long day ends. We head back to our hotel for supper. SG makes a very bad choice of river trout. It is teeny weeny - not at all like the delicious trout we bought at Lake Sevan, a few days earlier. Stick to pasta, is better advice.
Day 42 Wednesday July 5 2017
- A rare day of rest in the Vardzia Valley spent mostly at our hotel. No sightseeing except a quick drive to view the Monastery Caves in full sunlight.
- It's an admin day ( stuff happens at home even when you are away and stop the post) and a washing day. Thankfully we have a small balcony and the clothes will dry within a few hours.
- SG concludes that modern hotel bathrooms are not designed for drying clothes. They are often too small or do not have sufficient hooks to hang the washing line. It often takes great ingenuity to work out how.
- The food does not improve. Since it is our last day in Georgia, we indulge one final time in a Khatchapuri - the cheese filled bread that is Geirgia's signature snack. Actually 'snack' is a misnomer because it is a meal in itself and very filling. It sure beats river trout.
- We are amazed how quickly the day passes just chilling. We must do it more often!
Chevroni Petrol Station w Ferrari Logo
Armenian / Georgia Border
Swathes of Daisies & Other Flowers, Armenia Near Goergian Border
Armenia / Georgia Border - the Smallest & Quietest We Have Encountered to Date
Cows Have Right of Way
We Love Stork Watching
This is Where the Nest was Built
Georgian Man is Happy to Pose for a Photo with his Lada
A Strange Bridge Over River Paravani
Strange Bridge Over River Paravani
Khertvisi Fortess Near to Vardzia
AG's Snake Trick
Church at Vardzia Nunnery
The New Roof to Church @ Nunnery Deceives. This is Entrance
Church Bells That Are Rung To Call to 6 o' clock Prayer @ Vardzia Nunnery
A Nun Rushes to 6 o' clock Prayers in the Church
Vardzia Monastery Caves
Arches Were Carved Into The Rock Face @ Vardzia Monastery Caves
Vardzia Monastery Caves
AG in Old Refectory @ Vardzia Cave Monastery
13C Frescoes, Church of Assumption, Vardzia
Vardzia Monastery Caves
Restoration of Vardzia Caves - Good or Bad?
SG In Front of Vardzia Monastery Caves
AG Relaxing on Terrace Overlooking Monastery Caves