A Travellerspoint blog

Lots of Reasons to Come to Kazbegi / Stepantsminda

overcast 15 °C

Day 23 & 24 Friday June 16 & Saturday June 17 2017

Kazbegi & environs

  • Unusually we are staying 3 nights and 2 full days in the same place! Time to relax, do some sightseeing & get some exercise - the mild kind. But if you are serious walkers or climbers then more arduous activity is also available here. The hiking season lasts from June to Mid September.
  • Breakfast at Rooms Hotel is quite a spread. The best we've had so far on this trip. But a group of Japanese guests still insist on bringing to the table their own pots of instant noodles. Yes, yes every man to his own taste and all that. And yes we bring in our coffee pot when the brew on offer is inadequate.
  • We have lived in Japan so understand better than many, the idiosyncrasies of this wonderful nation. But even we are challenged to understand why, half way up a mountain, in the isolated Sno Valley, some of the same group need to wear face masks! ?
  • Day 1 - the weather forecast suggests rain in the afternoon. So rather than climb up to the iconic Tsminda Sameba, majestically perched on the top of a green (low ) mountain on the opposite side of the valley, we decide to do some vehicle based sightseeing.
  • First we drive as far North as we can, some 10 km or so to the Russian border. On the last bend in Georgia is a modern church built according to traditional design. It is the last and first sight at the border crossing. The border itself is a rather insignificant affair considering it is an entrance point to the world's largest country ( in terms of landmass ) . But there are clear signs that facilities are being updated and enlarged. It's yet another work in progress.
  • Next we detour off the Military Highway to park up for a 30 minute hike to the Gveleti Waterfall. We've seen greater wonders, but it is good to get some much needed exercise. At altitude in excess of 2000m it is obvious how out of condition we have become after only 3 weeks of being on the road & sat in a car.
  • On our way back to Kazbegi we turn off at a small village called Tsdo, interesting for its elevated & strategic position. The views are amazing, even on a dull overcast day. Like many villages of a similar size, it looks somewhat run down and devoid of life. But look hard and there is evidence of habitation. We do see a couple of old villagers. The population here is likely to be quite elderly.
  • South East of Kazbegi lies our final destination - Sno Valley and the village of Juta. The drive from the main road down the valley to Juta is very rough. A 4 wheel drive is essential. Juta is obviously a hikers' centre and times are changing. New accommodation is being constructed to service the growing 'active' tourist industry. From here we walk some 40 minutes up to the first mountain refuge located at 2340 m. There is a restaurant here and basic accommodation for those climbers and hikers preparing to scale the higher slopes that lie beyond and above. Camping is also allowed.
  • We do not have the equipment, time or fitness level to contemplate going further. In any case the cloud is closing in and the weather beginning to deteriorate. However if this is the type of holiday you are looking for, it is definitely worth checking out online details. The next climbing refuge after Juta is the Bethlemi hut at 3653m - there is accommodation for 50 or so people and in peak season you need to book ahead. It sounds like it gets quite busy up there!
  • Another delicious supper in the hotel lounge, more glasses of Georgian red wine. At an altitude of 1800 m it has a potent effect.
  • Day 2 - at 8 a.m. the hotel is shrouded in low loud. But as AG reminds - in the mountains you should never judge a whole day by what you see in the early morning. And very often meteorologists do no better. True to form by mid morning the sun is out and good views from the Tsminda Sameba Church look feasible.
  • For this is where we are heading today. This small church has become the symbol of Georgia to the outside world. Its hilltop setting at nearly 2200m with the mighty Mt Kazbek rising up behind, is incomparably photogenic. For more professional photos of this gorgeous church take a look on google - Tsminda Sameba Church, Kazbegi. We know our photos do not compare.
  • There are many routes up to the church. But it seems pointless to walk from our hotel. A better option is to drive to the village of Gergeti ( @ 1800 m ) park up the truck and walk the rest of the way. Then if time & energy permit you can walk a further 1000 m ascent to the Gergeti Glacier. Guide books warn that the return church / glacier walk will take around 8 hours. So start early!
  • As regards paths up to Tsminda Sameba church, the best option is to head for the old stone tower in Gergeti village, turn right some 200m beyond it and head upwards. The ascent takes about 45 minutes. The descent is no quicker because it demands concentration every step of the way.
  • Within the Tsminda Sameba church no photography is allowed. The two small windows hardly illuminate. Eyes are drawn instead to the candles that the pious leave burning and the many religious works of art that adorn the walls.
  • By the way there is strict dress control in Georgian churches. Men must uncover their heads, ladies must cover them. Men must wear long trousers and women have to wear long skirts or borrow the garments provided outside every church.
  • Note the shape of the crosses decorating the church roof - with a slight drooping of the horizontal arms. This is called the Grapevine Cross also known as the Georgian cross or St Nino's Cross. It is a major symbol of Georgian Orthodox Church and dates from 4C when Christianity became the official religion of Georgia.
  • By the time we leave the church, the Saturday crowds are arriving - mostly Georgians or Russians and many young people among them. The foot attire of some of the walkers is concerning - Espadrilles, strappy sandals and plimsoles are just not appropriate.
  • So the tips are: aim to arrive at the church early, especially at weekends, follow the northerly path and wear suitable shoes. Oh and take water. There are no facilities up on top. Just a couple of portaloos and a shop selling candles and religious memorabilia.
  • Disconcertingly maps show a cable car connection to the church. Once up there, we thankfully see no evidence of this type of access. We hope that neither is it planned for the future. What sacrilege!
  • Fortunately locals felt the same. They have dismantled the cable car that the Soviet authorities built in 1988. Today from one aspect of the church you can still see the remnants of the cable car reception area. But with care, you can take photographs that hide this 20C architectural scar. And from a distance across the valley the church still looks perfect.
  • The Georgians certainly did not build their ancient churches with the aim of attracting large congregations! By now we have seen many that are located in elevated places far from human habitation. They would have offered peaceful sanctuary to their religious residents, would have been used as safe storage for Georgia's ancient religious artefacts during turbulent times of foreign invasion. And to the ordinary Georgians living within view ( & Georgian churches were built to be visible for miles around) they would have been and still are, a constant physical reminder that their God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. Awesome.
  • It has already been mentioned that at the Rooms hotel there is a young, wealthy, hip clientele. There is a bar open 24hrs and there has been rumour of a weekend influx of Russians who drink heavily and party late. Fortunately this is not the case this Saturday - maybe it is a particular problem when there is a National holiday over the border. Kazbegi is only about 45 km from Vladikavkaz, the capital city of Northern Ossetia ( part of Russia ) with a population of 300000. There is unlikely to be anything similar to the Rooms Hotel concept in Vladikavkaz.
  • When we checked in a couple of days ago, no mention was made to us of the 24 hr casino on site. Perhaps dressed in our casual travel gear and arriving by a Toyota truck, we did not look as if gambling was either within our budget or on our mind.
  • The gambling facilities of the hotel are not obviously advertised. There is no signage pointing the way. The casino lies behind an obscure wooden door adjacent to the lift shaft. It could be a store cupboard. But on the other side of the door is a room or rather a hall of equal size to the lobby lounge. Male & female croupiers stand at a variety of gambling tables, awaiting their clientele. There is a bank ( of course ) and a section of one man bandit machines to rob you of small change (or more if you stay too long). Staff Heavies stand at strategic exit points. Well, well, well. Now it is apparent what some of the clientele get up to - some come here to appreciate Georgian mountain scenery, maybe do some hiking & climbing, or pay respect in one of the most beautiful churches in the world. Others relax by the indoor pool on their various devices, have a massage and indulge in their worship of Mammon.
  • And why the attraction? Since 2009 gambling has been banned almost everywhere in Russia except for 4 designated zones. And none of those zones is close to Vladikavkaz. Ah, the roulette chip has just dropped.
  • If you do not fancy staying in Rooms Hotel, the residential area nearby and with similar panoramic views, seems to be developing into a district of home stays, pensions and B&Bs.

The Lela & Mari Homestay on Booking.com comes highly recommended by a couple of Brits we meet up at Tsminda Sameba.

  • With shifting cloud and variegated sunshine, the view from our bedroom and balcony is constantly mutating. Behind the cloud cover stands the summit of Mt Kazbek. At 5033m it is higher than Mont Blanc by over 200m ( a significant difference at that altitude ). It is one of the highest mountains in Caucasus Mtn range on the border of Georgia and North Ossetia ( Republic of Russia ). A British mountaineering team were the first to get to its summit in 1868.
  • Mt Mkinvari is the Georgian name; it means Ice Mountain. A very apt name since it is flanked on all sides by large glaciers. And as our photographs show there is still much snow cover.
  • How ironic that after hours of observation, it is only when the sun leaves the valley that the mountain reveals herself in perfect clarity. On this mid June day the sun disappears behind the Mt Kazbek 's summit at 7.15 p.m. It only actually sets a good 2 hours later. We are hopeful that we will see her again tomorrow morning - the weather forecast is good and the sun will be at the right angle for a decent photo. Our fingers are crossed.

Basic Tourist Map of Area Where We Visit

Basic Tourist Map of Area Where We Visit

First & Last Georgian Church Right on Border

First & Last Georgian Church Right on Border

Georgian - Russian Border

Georgian - Russian Border

Tsdo Village

Tsdo Village

Evidence of Life at Tsdo Village

Evidence of Life at Tsdo Village

Man Crafted Rock Face

Man Crafted Rock Face

Sno Valley

Sno Valley

Juta Village & Changing Times

Juta Village & Changing Times

5 Seasons Mountain Refuge Just Above Juta

5 Seasons Mountain Refuge Just Above Juta

AG at the First Mountain Refuge Beyond Juta

AG at the First Mountain Refuge Beyond Juta

Provisions & Materials Are Taken Up by Sledge

Provisions & Materials Are Taken Up by Sledge

Ancient Stone Tower in Gergeti Village

Ancient Stone Tower in Gergeti Village

AG, Snowline & Double Cloudline

AG, Snowline & Double Cloudline

Kazbegi Valley - Looking Towards Hote in Far Distance

Kazbegi Valley - Looking Towards Hote in Far Distance

Tsminda Sameba Church - Note the Grapevine Cross on Roof

Tsminda Sameba Church - Note the Grapevine Cross on Roof

The Grapevine Cross, Symbol of the Georgian Orthodox Church

The Grapevine Cross, Symbol of the Georgian Orthodox Church

Tsminda Sameba Church - AG's Photo

Tsminda Sameba Church - AG's Photo

Professional Shot of Tsminda Sameba Church

Professional Shot of Tsminda Sameba Church

SG Has That Top of The World Feeling

SG Has That Top of The World Feeling

Sunset and Mt Kazbek

Sunset and Mt Kazbek

Posted by sagbucks 11:20 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

With Friends Like These Who Needs Enemies

Kazbegi - nearest Georgian town to Russian Border

overcast 20 °C

Day 22 June 15 2007
Mtskheta to Kazbegi (old Russian name) / Stepantsminda (Georgian name) / 134 km

  • Gino Wellness Hotel Group provides another dismal breakfast experience. Thank goodness we have our own coffee to brew. But it is probably one of the few hotels in town. At least the views from their 4 th floor terrace are spectacular - day & night.
  • There are lots of roadside fruit sellers - apricots, peaches, cherries, strawberries & more besides. All very tempting but experience has taught that local fruit must be eaten on the day of purchase. It deteriorates rapidly which makes us wonder what is put into our supermarket produce in UK to prolong its shelf life.
  • After 35 km or so the scenery starts to get more mountainous. Our first stop is Ananuri Fortress (circa 13C) which sits in a stunning location beside the Zhinvali reservoir. We are not alone. The car park is already full with coaches by 11 a.m. Souvenir stalls sell the usual rubbish. There are the inevitable fancy dress photo opportunities. Why do tourists pay to look stupid?!
  • The fortress is a classic example of beautiful old Georgian architecture. Within it are two 17C churches, the larger of which is called the Assumption Church. Every exterior facade has a large cross carved into the stonework. See photo.
  • The little church is notable, at least to us, for its brick roof. This would seem to take the art of brick laying to a new level of expertise.
  • We are driving the Georgian Military Highway. It follows the route of an ancient passage through the Caucasus to Russia. For a long time it was just a track but during Russian occupation in the 19C it was improved. Today it is a single lane highway and is not a safe road to drive. There is much dangerous overtaking. Patience is always a virtue and can save lives.
  • 75 km before Mtskheta we glimpse snow capped mountains for the first time.
  • This is to be expected since another 30 km further on we pass through the ski resort of Gudauri - small by European standards but at 2200 m high and with pistes rising to well over 3500 m it must be snow sure. Accommodation is not particularly attractive but then people come here for the skiing not pretty houses. Off piste skiing is apparently excellent and there are heli skiing opportunities as well.
  • After Gudauri we come across a large semi circular wall 100m or so above the road. The adjacent car park and souvenir stalls indicate that this is a place on the tourist map. Despite reservations about visiting commercial stuff, we join the crowds. It is in fact the Russia -Georgia Friendship Monument built in 1983 to commemorate their ongoing friendship. Inside the monument is a large tile mural that spans the whole circumference of the structure and depicts scenes of Georgian and Russian history. It overlooks (appropriately named?) Devil's Valley.
  • With Friends like these, ( Russians ) who needs enemies?
  • They are neighbours, former 'political relatives' ( Georgia used to be part of the Soviet Union until 1991) but they fought each other briefly 1991-2 just after Georgia gained independence from Mother Russia. In 2008 there were again brief hostilities and Russia even shelled and invaded Gori for 10 days ( where we stayed two nights ago / birth place of Stalin ) . Did we hear about this in the Western media?
  • The cause of this tension is all too familiar in our world - an ethno-political dispute that manifests itself as a territorial disagreement. It's complicated. You probably need to google if you are interested. Basically Georgia claims South Ossetia is Georgian territory. South Ossetia wants to be an independent state (There are about 55000 South Ossetians ) . North Ossetia which lies on the other side of the mountains is part of Russia. Most ethnic Georgians have left South Ossetia and most South Ossetians have abandoned their homes which lie within Georgia. Russia controls South Ossetia borders and Georgia views this as tantamount to Russisn annexation.
  • As previously said it's complicated and who are we to decide the rights & wrongs. We just realise that tensions continue between Russia and Georgia. But then Russia seems to excel in the tension game.
  • A few more km and we reach the Ivari Pass @ 2395m
  • Some 17km further on we turn West off the Military Highway to head up the Truso Valley. We are in Georgia but this valley leads into the disputed area of South Ossetia. The very rough track ( you need a 4x4) passes abandoned 'Ossetian' villages and is dotted with ancient stone towers that were presumably defensive in purpose. The scenery is stunning but it has a sad neglected feel to it. We drive just beyond Kvemo village. Then stop for lunch beside abandoned homes. There is some sign of human activity but it is minimal. In winter this valley will be cut off from the main road for several months. It is an isolated place in all senses of the word.
  • If you have more time & an appropriate vehicle you can continue past our lunch stop to Ketrisi, or beyond if the Georgian soldiers allow.
  • Our destination for 3 nights and 2 full days is the Rooms Hotel in Kazbegi. Both Kazbegi & the Rooms Hotel are described as spectacular in the guide books. Some people come here for the Rooms Hotel sensation, some for the Kazbegi experience and some like us for both. This stylish hotel has been created from a former soviet Turbaza by two Tblisi designers.
  • What you need to know before you look at the photos of the hotel is : a Turbaza is a Soviet era term used to describe a form of inexpensive, holiday accommodation for Russians - a tour camp or tourbase. Turbazas were commonly leased-out to firms renting the entire facility to provide holiday accommodation employees. In other words a holiday camp. The BBC series Hi-de-Hi springs to mind!
  • How times have changed. Nothing could be further from the truth - nowadays. The clientele are international and predominantly young & child free. It's extremely hip. It obviously attracts the wealthy & time rich from all over the world. It is successful because it is offering a unique concept in a unique environment. Once it has competition life may not be so easy. But for now it is the best on offer and it is undoubtedly a wonderful experience in a spectacular part of the world.
  • AG is very impressed with the design. SG less so. Is it shabby chic, Scandi chic, industrial chic? Whatever. The hotel has some great feature pieces of art & furniture but they may not be original, just copies. It does not matter; the desired ambience is created. The designers have been very clever in achieving maximum design effect with minimal expenditure. The exterior has been cladded with wood ( cladding - now a terrible word with fatal consequences ) to make it look more aesthetically pleasing. The concrete stairwell and corridors has been painted a trendy dark grey. The lighting is contemporary & design led. Most importantly service is unobtrusively attentive and given with a big smile. And nature plays the biggest part in the whole equation by affording amazing views. It's location, location, location!

*This evening we chill in the lounge / bar area where you can also choose to eat a la carte. (Mainly Georgian traditional food served with professional flair ). Sparkling Georgian bubbly costs 3£ a glass. So expensive as this place is, relative to the rest of Georgia, in the scheme of things ... We think we may enjoy our stay!

Church of Assumption 17C. Note Exterior Cross Carved into Stone

Church of Assumption 17C. Note Exterior Cross Carved into Stone

Church  of Assumption at Anauri Fortress

Church of Assumption at Anauri Fortress

Brick Roof of Church at Ananuri Fortress

Brick Roof of Church at Ananuri Fortress

Dressing Up Kit at Ananuri Fortress

Dressing Up Kit at Ananuri Fortress

Lots of Local Fresh Fruit for Sale

Lots of Local Fresh Fruit for Sale

A Rare Hat Off Moment

A Rare Hat Off Moment

Mid June & Winter is Still Lurking

Mid June & Winter is Still Lurking

Sheep Jam  / Beware

Sheep Jam / Beware

Man & Horse Guiding Sheep Jam

Man & Horse Guiding Sheep Jam

Mountain Scenery En Route to Kazbegi

Mountain Scenery En Route to Kazbegi

The Rough Road Through the Scenic Truso Valley

The Rough Road Through the Scenic Truso Valley

Truso Valley Scenery

Truso Valley Scenery

Truck Dares Pass over Rickety Bridge in Truso Valley

Truck Dares Pass over Rickety Bridge in Truso Valley

Picnic Stop in Truso Valley

Picnic Stop in Truso Valley

Abandoned Homes in Truso Valley

Abandoned Homes in Truso Valley

Old Stone Tower in Truso Valley

Old Stone Tower in Truso Valley

Abandoned Homes in Truso Valley

Abandoned Homes in Truso Valley

Rooms Hotel Kazbegi ( their photo not mine )

Rooms Hotel Kazbegi ( their photo not mine )

Lounge at Rooms Hotel Kazbegi

Lounge at Rooms Hotel Kazbegi

Industrial Chic - Dining Room @ Rooms Hotel

Industrial Chic - Dining Room @ Rooms Hotel

View from Rooms Hotel Terrace

View from Rooms Hotel Terrace

More Views from Hotel Terrace

More Views from Hotel Terrace

View Towards Mt Kazbeg

View Towards Mt Kazbeg

Industrial a Chic at the Rooms Hotel, Kazbegi

Industrial a Chic at the Rooms Hotel, Kazbegi

Posted by sagbucks 12:02 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

From Memories of Stalin to the Holiest Place in Georgia

semi-overcast 20 °C

Day 21 Wednesday June 14 2017
Gori to Mtskheta / 64 km

  • Our little bed & breakfast, Savane, is another oasis, the kind we like. Basic, clean, quiet & comfortable. Set in the middle of a residential area and walking distance from the city centre and the fortress..
  • Gori claims credit for two famous sons. There are probably many more, but these are the two that we have heard of: Joseph Stalin & Eduard Shevardnadze. More about Stalin in a minute. People of our age will remember the name Shevardnadze - he was Mikhail Gorbachev's Foreign Minister during the Soviet policy of 'Glasnost & Perestroika' ( meaning 'open' & 'listening' )
  • This political movement unleashed simmering national tensions in the Caucasus region and in 1991 all 3 countries that we are visiting on this trip declared independence from the Soviet Union. Shevardnadze returned to Georgia to politically manage his country's emergence as a Nation State. But he was blamed for continued corruption and rising crime and was himself 'overthrown' by what is known as the Rose Revolution in 2003.
  • After breakfast served in the 'hall' ( we are now brewing our own coffee almost daily) we visit the Stalin Museum with great expectations. It is located in the centre of town, on, where else, Stalin Avenue. But it disappoints big time. The building is 'stalinesque' - large empty spaces, marble flooring & walls & very austere . Exhibits are mostly photographic or in the form of letters & documents. The majority of the explanatory signage is only in Russian & Georgian. So we have little clue of what we are looking at and sadly leave none the wiser. There may be a possibility of organising an English speaking guide but the cost or length of tour is unknown. And in any case the exhibits would still be dull!
  • Back briefly to Stalin. If that's possible. He was born Iosif (Joseph) Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili in 1879 in Gori. His family was poor, his father an abusive character and his mother religious. She had ambitions for her son to become a priest. But as so often happens, children rebel - it's just that in Stalin's case he took it a lot further.
  • Instead of studying scripture at college he used his time & energy to read the secret writings of Karl Marx. He joined a local socialist group and became active in the revolutionary movement against the Russian monarchy. By 1899 he was thrown out of college & declared himself an atheist. And that was just the beginning.
  • By the way Dzhugashvili's adopted name Stalin ( which is easier to prononce ) means 'made of steel' . It was quite common at that time to use an alias name, especially if you were likely to get into trouble. It helped to protect your family from direct connection. Lenin did the same.
  • Initially Stalin served under Lenin as General Secretary of the Communist party. After Lenin's death in 1924 he promoted himself as his natural successor. He governed the Soviet Union from the mid-1920s until his death in 1953. Ideologically both a Marxist and a Leninist, his own policies and theories became known as Stalinism.
  • His historical notoriety is due amongst other things to the Great Purge he organised between 1934 -9 during which time millions of so called "enemies of the working class' were interned in Gulag run prisons, exiled, executed or simply vanished without due process. His historical accolade is based on his defeat of Hitler and the transformation of the Soviet Union from a feudal economy to an industrial power that ultimately also became a superpower.
  • A couple of memorable Stalin quotes:

'A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.'

'It is enough that the people know there was an election. The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.'

  • On a lighter note & a more contemporary one, Georgia also has a daughter who is now well known in Europe: singer Katie Melua. She has recently toured UK with the Gori Women's Choir. Our B&B hostess used to sing in the very same choir when she was young. Check out YouTube for Katie Melua's rendition of the 'Little Swallow' accompanied by the ladies of Gori. It's hauntingly beautiful.
  • Hoping for a more positive experience than Stalin's museum, we drive 11km out of town to Uplistsikhe - a cave settlement that developed from 6C B.C. to become a cave city of 20000 people by around 7C A.D. It became an important trade centre on the main caravan route from Asia to Europe. As often happens to great cities, decline set in during the 12C. Then the Mongols arrived in 1240 and finished the process. It was later simply abandoned. The ruins seen today are entirely as a result of archaeology research since the second half of 20C
  • If it is a little blustery in the car park, by the time we scale the rock face through the old city gate up into the inner city area, it is blowing a gale. Uplistsikhe is also a Windy City! It's hold onto your hats windy. We do our best to work out the details of the various numbered cave dwellings. It's not easy and signage could be much improved.
  • As we exit the cave city we are eager to find the 'escape ' tunnel which was also used for quick access to the river. It is Impressive engineering that dates back milennia.
  • By midday we leave Gori in the direction of Tblisi. Some 65 km away. However the capital of Georgia is not yet our destination. Actually not until the end of June. Instead we are stopping in Mtskheta which is often incorporated, for sightseeing purposes, as a day trip from Tbilisi. We hope to enjoy this former capital in peace & quiet once the day trippers have gone.
  • Mtskheta, located on the confluence of the rivers Aragvi & Mtkvari, is the spiritual heart of Georgia and the Georgian Orthodox Church. It has been ever since Christianity was established in this country around 327 A.D.
  • On our approach the motorway winds past a hill on top of which stands Jvari church, one of most iconic sights in Georgia. It is visible for miles around and at night is beautifully illuminated.
  • Jvari is also called the Church of the Holy Cross. It was built between 586-605 A.D. on the site where first the Christian King of Georgia, King Mirian , erected a large wooden cross to commemorate his conversion to Christianity. The octagonal base of the 4C of cross is still preserved in the centre of the church.
  • Outside there are gorgeous 360 degree views of the surrounding countryside.
  • In Mtskheta there is another significant place to visit - Svetitskhoveli Cathedral which dates dates from 11C. Architecturally it represents the golden age of Georgian Ecclesiatical buildings. But it also draws the crowds because it is believed that Christ's Crucification robe lies buried beneath the central nave under a square pillar decorated with frescoes. Check google for the details of this story & see what you think. Suffice to say many of the visitors bow, kneel or prostrate themselves in reverence.
  • Finally we pay a brief visit to the little nunnery of Samtavro and then head back to our hotel to catch up on home news. And yes we are aware of yet another terrible tragedy to hit the city of London. We have a feeling that this time around it is the public who have had enough. Somebody or some organisation has been criminally negligent. A public enquiry will not suffice. Heads must roll Mrs May, even if it's yours.
  • We head out downtown for early supper. We have already identified a restaurant. As we do so it starts to rain. Then the cats & dogs arrive - for several hours. We are in the midst of a ferocious thunderstorm, the kind you only see in movies. The road turns into a river. We are at the mercy of car drivers. A soaking is inevitable.
  • In the scheme of things we are close to Noah territory. Remember that Georgians claim to be directly descended from one of Noah's great great grandsonns. He probably had quite a few. And we all know what happened to Noah!
  • We abandon plans to walk to the restaurant on the edge of town - we dash into the nearest place serving food.
  • The restaurant is empty save for a couple of Czech travellers. They are also sheltering from the rain. They have a distinct advantage over us - as do many travellers from Eastern European countries or former Soviet Union States - they had to learn Russian at school and can communicate directly with the waitress.
  • We choose a peasant's salad dressed in a delicious walnut sauce, a Katchapuri to share ( it's so large even AG agrees to that ) and a couple of clay pots of Lobio ( a local delicacy ) which is a spicy bean stew. It's all very delicious, even with Borjomi water, and extremely filling.
  • Fortunately, as we return to our hotel, although still raining, the thunderstorm has passed. Another busy day has ended.

B6744FABACDB2BD6F195FB3E68CE0797.jpgB674F72A0D6EE2B216F661E2B14E83EC.jpgTrain that Took Stalin to Yalta 1945 - at the Museum this is as good as it gets

Train that Took Stalin to Yalta 1945 - at the Museum this is as good as it gets

10C Basilica Built On Top of Pagan Temple

10C Basilica Built On Top of Pagan Temple

Hold on to Your Hat Windy!

Hold on to Your Hat Windy!

Tunnel Leading Down From Cave City of Uplistsikhe to River Mtkvari

Tunnel Leading Down From Cave City of Uplistsikhe to River Mtkvari

Jvari Church from One Perspective

Jvari Church from One Perspective

Jvari Church from Another Aspect

Jvari Church from Another Aspect

Gorgeous Interior of Jvari Church 585-604

Gorgeous Interior of Jvari Church 585-604

View of Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, Mtskheta

View of Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, Mtskheta

Pious Reflection Before the Place Where Christ's Crucification Robe is Believed to be Buried

Pious Reflection Before the Place Where Christ's Crucification Robe is Believed to be Buried

Interior of Svetitskhoveli Cathedral 11C

Interior of Svetitskhoveli Cathedral 11C

Nun Reading Outside Samtavro Church, Mtskheta

Nun Reading Outside Samtavro Church, Mtskheta

Road Turns to River in Heavy Thunderstorm

Road Turns to River in Heavy Thunderstorm

Posted by sagbucks 12:08 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

Kutaisi to Gori & Monastery to Monastery

sunny 25 °C

Day 20 Tuesday 13 June 2017
Kutaisi to Gori / 213 KM

  • It's been said before, but what a difference a day makes! The sky is blue, the sun shining and Kutaisi today looks a very different place.
  • After breakfast we walk into the town centre which has been well renovated. Tree lined boulevards, parks and flowers and old buildings scrubbed clean. We happen to pass the small hotel where we should have stayed. 'Old Town Hotel'. Strike it off your list of options. They cancelled our booking just 3 days prior to our arrival. Excuse: 'unforeseen circumstances'. Real reason was they wished to sell our room at a higher rate than they receive through booking.com.
  • As usual booking.com have given tremendous customer service: they rebooked us in the nearby Best Western and will refund the price difference. It's a lucky escape since the Best Western is far superior - it was only opened 3 months ago. The staff are trying really hard to give great friendly service & there is a delightful roof top restaurant overlooking the city.
  • We have driven independently to Georgia, a country we know very little about. We have no guide. This means we must work out the answers to the questions that inevitably present themselves about a foreign culture. Sometimes the penny drops through logic and common sense, sometimes you have to ask, on other occasions we must 'Google'.
  • We locate the large covered market which is rated in Lonely Planet.
  • In the market there are familiar & unfamiliar foods. AG is team taster - if he likes it & lives, SG might try! Not that he's more adventurous, but he does eat all meat, SG doesn't. The first challenge is the candle shaped candy called Churchkela which is made from flour, grapes & nuts. It does not look like a typical sweet delicacy, nor does it taste particularly tempting. AG samples & gives the OK signal to SG so that she can also try.
  • Nearby, there is Tklapi for sale. It resembles pieces of leather. In fact it is puréed fruit pulp that has been dried in the sun to form thin flat sheets. Tklapi tastes better than Churchkela, but neither compare to Turkish delight or Iranian nougat.
  • Another puzzle are the stray dogs roaming around Kutaisi with yellow ear tags. They may not be in the greatest condition but the tag means they are safe - they have been given a rabies shot and perhaps injections against other nasty canine diseases too.
  • And what about the overhead pipework we have been seeing in certain villages & small towns? - we thought it might be water. The elevated pipework would be cheaper and easier to repair than if underground. But walking around Kutaisi suburbs we see a gas meter connected to the pipe network and realise that they are gas pipes.
  • Whilst on our walk about we visit the National History Museum ( another one ). Upstairs there is some signage in English but it's not really worth much more than a very quick glance. Georgia does not seem to have spent much effort in modernising its museum displays. It's all a bit dull & uninspiring.
  • Mid morning we leave Kutaisi to drive to Gori but we first visit two beautiful & historic monasteries that are located a few KMs away in NE direction.
  • First stop is Motsameta Monastery, perched high up above a bend of the Tskhaltsitela River, known colloquially as 'Red Water' because of an 8C Arab massacre that took place here.
  • Sadly the sun is in the wrong direction and too high to take exterior shots. But our interior experience more than compensates. A priest is conducting the morning 'service' and is chanting in harmony with a lady who stands outside the holy altar area. The acoustics in this small chapel are wonderful. It is a very special moment.
  • Gelati Monastery is a short distance away. In fact you can walk from one to the other if you have an hour spare. We don't. Restoration work is very much in progress but the interior frescoes can still be appreciated.
  • The monastery complex was founded in 1106 by King Davit as a centre of Christian culture & learning. Many Georgian rulers are buried here. Including King Davit himself. His tomb lies just inside the South Gate. Presumably it was the original main entrance. And why was he buried here? Well, King Davit wished for everyone who visited Gelati to step on his grave. Ironically it is cordoned off nowadays. You are not allowed to pass over the tomb. King Davit will surely be turning in his grave!
  • In the principal church of the monastery, there is a renowned mosaic of Virgin & Child with Archangels Michael and Gabriel either side dating from the 1120's. The frescoes seen at Gelati were painted between 12C-18C. They are light, bright and impressive in their detail - not at all dark and gloomy. This is indeed why Gelati is famous. Regardless of whether you appreciate its spiritual significance, you cannot fail to be impressed by the quality of artwork and sheer creativity of the craftsmen all those centuries ago.
  • At Gelati we are fortunate to watch a professional photo shoot of two young women dressed in traditional costume.
  • Now it's time to hit the road again. It is the most hazardous we have driven to date. This is especially nerve wracking since we have no insurance. Lots of HGVs, single lane highway, dangerous overtaking manoeuvres, oh and wandering cattle grazing untethered on the grass verges. No herdsmen are in sight.
  • We have another picnic lunch today. The Turkish yogurt we bought ( a very big pot ) is still going strong. It's been a couple of days since we last opened the fridge. Now we discover it has been working too well - we must eat frozen bananas and deep chilled yogurt.
  • By seeking a quiet spot well away from the busy road, driving down to the river on a dirt track, we unwittingly put ourselves at risk. We are in a stray dog's territory and he is not ear tagged. We are at his mercy. As it happens we are able to bribe him with some cheese & bread. He then lies down, watches & waits. But it's a lesson worth remembering.
  • Instead of going straight to our B&B in Gori we decide to make the most of a fine afternoon and visit Ateni Sioni, another in a long list of ancient & beautiful churches in Georgia. It lies 12 km South of Gori in gorgeous rural countryside in an area known as the Tana Valley. This could also be named grapevine valley since grapes are being grown in abundance. We pass several wineries & cellar doors.
  • Ateni Sioni was built in 7C and modelled on Jvari Church which we will see tomorrow in Mtskheta.
  • Lonely Planet 2016 ( so it would have been researched 2015 or even earlier ) mentions that the interior of Ateni Sioni is being renovated and that the 'Forest of scaffolding' makes it difficult to see the frescoes that date from the 11C. They are considered to be some of the finest medieval artwork in Georgia.
  • Well it's good to know that Lonely Planet is up to date! Sadly the work is still very much in progress. We are becoming used to this state of play. It begs a couple of questions: Firstly whether it is worth the journey from Gori to see very little? Secondly is Georgia spending all this money restoring its beautiful churches and monasteries in anticipation of a booming tourist industry?
  • It is interesting to note that the people high up on the scaffolding and doing the restoration work are young & female. Possibly students?
  • As well as the interior frescoes, which we can't see, the church is famous for the reliefs of stags & hunting scenes carved into the exterior stonework.
  • For us making the journey out to Ateni Sioni is easy and gives us an opportunity to see rural Georgia and an area of viticulture - which we always find interesting! But if you do not have your own transport, it might be good idea to check whether the scaffolding is still up before you head out here.
  • Last on today's sightseeing agenda ( are you exhausted too?!) is the Gori Fortress which is a mere 10 minute walk from our charming little B&B. It dates mostly from the Middle Ages with a few later additions. There's nothing much up there nowadays except some walls in rubble and a large flat area from where you get spectacular 360 degree views.
  • We are too hungry to wait for sunset ( yogurt lunch ) and so walk into town to a local restaurant adjacent to the Stalin Museum which the B & B owner has recommended. Spinach soup, grilled vegetables topped with melted cheese and of course a Katchapuri ( without runny egg ) to fill us up. It works a treat.

What is this Elevated Pipework All About?

What is this Elevated Pipework All About?

Riddle of Overhead Pipework Solved!

Riddle of Overhead Pipework Solved!

Renovated Street of Kutaisi

Renovated Street of Kutaisi

Boulevard Cafe

Boulevard Cafe

Tklapi in Kutaisi Market

Tklapi in Kutaisi Market

Churchkela in Kutaisi Market

Churchkela in Kutaisi Market

More Familiar Food at Kutaisi Market

More Familiar Food at Kutaisi Market

Some More Familiar Food in Kutaisi Market

Some More Familiar Food in Kutaisi Market

Potato Lady at Kutaisi Market

Potato Lady at Kutaisi Market

Note the Old Scales at Kutaisi Market

Note the Old Scales at Kutaisi Market

Let Sleeping Dogs with Yellow Tags in Ears - Lie

Let Sleeping Dogs with Yellow Tags in Ears - Lie

A Special Moment at Motsameta Monastery

A Special Moment at Motsameta Monastery

Work in Progress at Gelati Monastery

Work in Progress at Gelati Monastery

Gelati Monastery

Gelati Monastery

World Famous Fresco of Virgin & Child & Archangels in Gelati Church

World Famous Fresco of Virgin & Child & Archangels in Gelati Church

Frescoes in Gelati Monastery

Frescoes in Gelati Monastery

Dancers in Traditional Costume at Gelati Monastery

Dancers in Traditional Costume at Gelati Monastery

We're Being Watched by a Stray Dog.

We're Being Watched by a Stray Dog.

Tana Valley en Route to Ateni Sioni

Tana Valley en Route to Ateni Sioni

Cellar Doors in the Tana Valley

Cellar Doors in the Tana Valley

Ateni Sioni - Work in Progress

Ateni Sioni - Work in Progress

A Forest of Scaffolding in Ateni Sioni

A Forest of Scaffolding in Ateni Sioni

External Stone Work Carvings of Hunting Scenes

External Stone Work Carvings of Hunting Scenes

Suburban Skyline in Gori Resudential Area - Gas Pipes, Vine Trellis & Satellite Dish

Suburban Skyline in Gori Resudential Area - Gas Pipes, Vine Trellis & Satellite Dish

Posted by sagbucks 11:10 Comments (0)

Kutaisi in the Rain

rain 17 °C

Day 19 Monday June 12 2017
Akhaltsikhe to Kutaisi 178 km

  • Breakfast at the castle is very uninspiring. The worst so far of our trip. But we will not judge Georgia for its poor breakfasts yet.
  • For the first time in over a week, we sleep through dawn. It makes a huge difference.
  • Today's distance is relatively modest, but roads in Georgia are inferior to Turkey's superb network. And we have 2 sightseeing stops scheduled: the Sapara Monastery complex some 12 km SE of Akhaltsikhe and the town of Borjomi, source of the mineral water we drank last night with supper.
  • To get to the monastery we drive through undulating rural countryside. Wild flowers are in abundance beside the road and in the fields. No wonder the honey tastes so good. The bees are happy.
  • We see farming families in the fields - much work is done manually.
  • At Sapara Monastery we are the only visitors. We have the place to ourselves. What a privilege.

It has existed since at least 9C and important figures in Georgian ecclesiastical history have lived here. The largest church in the complex is called St Saba and is architecturally is one of the most important of its era. The 14C frescoes inside are of a very high quality.

  • Borjomi is nowadays a spa resort and sits on the edge of one of Georgia's National Parks. It is geared up for domestic & Russian tourism. In the immediate area there are about 40 different hot spring sources. The focus of our attention today is the original source of Borjomi mineral water within the Central Park. Look for the pavilion just inside the entrance and you will find the original source. A lady will fill for free any size bottle you give her.
  • The water is definitely an acquired taste. A bit salty, somewhat sour & luke warm. A wisteria growing nearby obviously flourishes on this water supply.
  • You may not have previously heard of Borjomi brand but in this part of the world and throughout Russia, it is like Perrier is to Europe.
  • Rumour has it: Borjomi water was discovered by Russian soldiers during their campaign against the Ottomans in 1828 - large numbers of troops had fallen ill with stomach disorders and they halted their advances in Borjomi to await recovery. The taste of the spring water amazed them as well the therapeutic effects of drinking it. News got around the Russian empire and in 1841 the Vice Roy of Georgia brought his sick daughter to Borjomi. She was cured. And so the spa and the idea of taking waters took off. Again.
  • Archeological digs have discovered 7 tubs that date back to 1C - so there is a strong possibility that the pleasures and benefits of bathing in natural warm spa water has been known for millennia.
  • By the mid 19C Borjomi became a favourite and prestigious recreation resort for Georgian & Russian nobility.
  • The commercial potential of Borjomi water was first recognised by a Russian military scientist - he dreamed of bottling the stuff & selling it. The first bottling plant was opened in 1896 - it's the large stone building just inside the park entrance. In 1900 the water was enriched with carbon dioxide and it became fizz! By 1913 the plant was producing an astonishing 9 million bottles.
  • Today of course there is a new bottling plant with much larger capacity outside of the park at one of the other spring sources.
  • We eat another lunch of Khatchapuri ( hot bread filled with melted cheese and served w butter & runny egg - remember?) washed down with a bottle of Borjomi. What else?
  • As we head to Kutaisi, heavy rain starts to fall & the temperature plummets to below 15C.
  • The roads are busy with HGV traffic and daredevil car drivers. We feel vulnerable. Our European insurance does not cover us. And unlike in Turkey there seems no easy mechanism for foreign cars to purchase special insurance cover whilst in Georgia.
  • Kutaisi is Georgia's second city with a population of around 150000 people. Since 2012 it is also where Parliament sits. An effort to decentralise the spoils of political power from the capital city. Apparently it's not that popular with Georgian politicians.
  • Our hotel, the newly built Best Western is situated conveniently on the south side of river with great access to the old city. Despite the rain there is no time to lose. So we decide to put on macs, grab our umbrellas from the truck and brave the storm.
  • We walk across the bridge adjacent to the hotel to access the steps that lead up to Bagrati Cathedral.
  • The River Rioni is flowing very high. Unusually so according to locals. But the old riverside buildings look as if they have endured such torrents before. So there is no need to worry.
  • Bagrati Cathedral is an obvious landmark of Kutaisi City. Standing visible up on the hill and now surrounded by genteel leafy suburbs, it was built in 10-11C.and is a magnificent example of ancient Georgian architecture. In 1692 the Ottomans invaded Kutaisi having taken control of Akhaltsikhe ( where we stayed last night ). They plundered the Cathedral's treasures and removed the marble columns from the temple ( dangerous manoeuvre !).
  • The Cathedral underwent a prolonged restoration project that lasted most of the 20C . In 1994 it was listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site ( yes another one! ).
  • Between 2004 - 12 there was further restoration of the cathedral. The finished model is presumably what we see today. Hopefully the photographs give you a good idea of its architectural beauty, despite the pouring rain. The restoration work has been done extremely well, perhaps with the exception of the roof which looks a bit new for a 10C church. But the colour is accurate. Old broken roof tiles have been discovered with a patina of exactly the same shade of azure. Amazing.
  • According to Christian tradition, azure symbolises heaven & the Kingdom of God.
  • It is a very wet walk back to the bridge. We stop in White Stones Bar adjacent to the Best Western. From the bar we look out onto the river, watch the rain, sip chilled Georgian wine and listen to the first live music of our trip - a trio of elderly Georgians playing the saxophone, violin & piano. What a find. They play 7-11 this evening. We may stay!

Wild Flowers of Georgia

Wild Flowers of Georgia

Gateway to Vegetable Plot, Rural Georgia

Gateway to Vegetable Plot, Rural Georgia

Sapara Monastery - We Have It to Ourselves

Sapara Monastery - We Have It to Ourselves

AG & Georgian Landscape

AG & Georgian Landscape

Frescoes in Sapara Monastery - Shame About the Graffiti

Frescoes in Sapara Monastery - Shame About the Graffiti

Fresco in Sapara Monastery

Fresco in Sapara Monastery

Sapara Monastery

Sapara Monastery

SG outside Sapara Monastery

SG outside Sapara Monastery

Local Wine for Sale

Local Wine for Sale

Georgian Russian & English - 3 Languages of Tourism in Georgia

Georgian Russian & English - 3 Languages of Tourism in Georgia

Modern Day Borjomi Brand

Modern Day Borjomi Brand

One of 40 Borjomi Minersl Water Sources

One of 40 Borjomi Minersl Water Sources

Amazing Wisteria Roots & Thriving Plant - Perhaps Due to Mineral Water?

Amazing Wisteria Roots & Thriving Plant - Perhaps Due to Mineral Water?

Bagrati Cathedral - In Very Heavy Rain

Bagrati Cathedral - In Very Heavy Rain

Torrential Rain is No Excuse to Stop Sightseeing Agenda

Torrential Rain is No Excuse to Stop Sightseeing Agenda

River Runs High

River Runs High

Posted by sagbucks 12:50 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

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