Author Archives: Julie

Georgian Museums

We like to learn about the places we travel to and a visit to the country’s museums can often be a good way to do that. However in many areas of the world which are not as affluent as Western / Northern Europe, exhibits can sometimes be a bit tired or dusty, with difficult to read translations, if any. But not so in Georgia, we were consistently impressed by the quality of the museums with well laid out displays, professional lighting and coherent and informative English labelling.

Museum of Georgia, Tbilisi: Andrew checking out the well-lit and labelled displays; an early 19th century Persian painting of a girl with a tambourine (artist unknown)

The centre piece museum is without a doubt the Museum of Georgia in Tbilisi. The exhibitions ranged from Asian art to Georgia’s time under Soviet occupation to a fascinating gallery filled with skulls and skull fragments of human ancestors from the Stone Age. But the standout exhibit has to be the Archaeological Treasury filled with beautifully made golden grave goods from burials excavated in Georgia and dating back to the 3rd millenium BC. The side room containing the numismatic treasury was cleverly set up with two examples of each coin (where possible) one showing the face and the other the reverse.

The progression of skull shapes through hominid development, Stone Age exhibition in Museum of Georgia

Coins and intricate goldwork in the Archaeological Treasury of the Museum of Georgia in Tbilisi, including the lion statuette which we recognised as the logo of the Bank of Georgia

The regional museums had nice twists showcasing what is special to their area of the country. The museum in Sighnaghi had a fairly standard exhibit of the archaeology and development of the area, but upstairs was a gallery of paintings by locally born national painter Niko Pirosmanashvili, also known as Pirosmani. We saw more of his pictures along with other Georgian artists in Tbilisi’s National Gallery.

National Gallery, Tbilisi (clockwise from left): ‘Yard Cleaner’ by Niko Pirosmanashvili; ‘Imeretian Landscape 1934’ by David Kakabadze; ‘Girl from the North’ by Iacob Nikoladze

In Svaneti the museum in Mestia is recently reopened in a state of the art building and displays many treasures from the region’s churches alongside culturally specific Svan items including clothing, weapons and local crafts.

The Svaneti History and Ethnography Museum in Mestia reopened in 2013 in this custom-built modern building

Svaneti History and Ethnography Museum (clockwise from top): icons from Svaneti’s churches; photograph of a late 19th century sanctuary door by Vittorio Sella; traditional Svan snow shoes

The final museum that we visited in Georgia is not under the aegis of the Georgian National Museums body, it is devoted to the country’s most infamous son, Josef Dzhugashvili, better known as Joseph Stalin. Stalin was born in Gori, 80km west of Tbilisi, and the museum contains the house where he was born and spent the first four years of his life, preserved on the spot where it originally stood, covered by a pavilion adorned with a Soviet hammer and sickle. The custom built museum is rather grand but slightly shabby and very cold, reminiscent of the Museo de la Revolucion in Havana. Its construction was actually started in 1951, two years before Stalin’s death, but didn’t open until 1957.

Stalin’s birthplace is preserved at the Stalin Museum in Gori

The displays were not particularly well signed but the whistlestop guided tour (included in the admission fee) was good at highlighting notable artefacts and giving an overview of the arc of Stalin’s life. For a man who is generally reviled in the west, it was strange to be in a place where the atrocities commited during his time in charge of the USSR are hardly acknowledged, the small corner devoted to those who died under his rule felt like a very token effort.

Stalin Museum (clockwise from top left): grand entrance staircase; the museum contains a large collection of photographs, letters and busts of Stalin; Stalin’s armoured train carriage contains a bathtub and an early air conditioning system; I was quite taken with the several carpet portraits

Somehow the gift shop at the Stalin Museum manages to be tacky and slightly disturbing at the same time

Kutaisi, Georgia

Kutaisi is the second largest city in Georgia though much smaller than the capital Tbilisi. It has a relaxed, friendly vibe and we really liked the central area with its bustling park, elaborate fountain and excellent market. There are plenty of interesting sites within day trip distance too, so in order to do them justice as well as reach a few other places in central Georgia we hired a car for our final week.

Colchis fountain, Kutaisi

The Colchis Fountain stands in front of the Drama Theatre in the centre of Kutaisi. The Bagrati Cathedral is on the hilltop in the background

The Colchis Fountain forms a roundabout in the city centre and is decorated with large scale replicas of 2000 year old gold jewellery excavated from a tomb in nearby Vani. The Colchis civilization which was responsible for the jewellery has been linked to the Ancient Greek legends of Jason and the Argonauts and their search for the Golden Fleece. (Note to Kutaisi City Council: please make a pedestrian crossing to the fountain so that tourists can get a closer look at the sculptures without getting run over…)

The market was just as friendly as the one we visited in Tbilisi with sellers eager to chat, offer samples and let us photograph their wares

The Georgian Parliament was moved from Tbilisi to Kutaisi by the government of Mikheil Saakashvili to decentralise power from the capital and boost economically deprived Kutaisi. The futuristic building was opened in 2012. Tours inside need to be booked in advance so we just parked up and had a look around outside.

The new Georgian Parliament building in Kutaisi

On a hill overlooking the city centre stands Bagrati Cathedral, one of two UNESCO listed sites close to Kutaisi. The pale stone walls and green roof have been pretty much completely rebuilt after lying in ruins since 1692 when it was destroyed by the Ottomans. The grounds around it and the view over the city to the Lesser Caucasus mountains are beautiful but we found it rather staid inside.

Bagrati Cathedral has been almost completely rebuilt from its ruined state

Under the same UNESCO World Heritage listing as the Bagrati Cathedral is Gelati Monastery, just a 20 minute drive into the hills to the north-east of Kutaisi. We found this much more interesting, from the old monk poking about in the engine of his equally aged car just inside the entrance to the stunning frescoed interior of the main church. The monastery was founded in 1106 by King David the Builder (guess what he was famous for!) as a centre of culture and learning and it retained that reputation until the communists arrived in the 1920s.

Gelati monastery (clockwise from top): restoration works were being carried out during our visit with rather natty green roof tiles being added to the buildings; Andrew and Jo taking photographs beside the grave of King David the Builder; the small Church of St Nicholas stands on an unusual arcaded base

King David the Builder wanted to be buried in one of the monastery gates so that visitors would have to step on him to enter the complex. The gate is now permanently closed for passing through and today’s visitors take care to not step on the gravestone!

Frescoes dating from the 12th to 18th centuries cover the whole interior of the Cathedral of the Virgin at Gelati monastery

Just down the hill from Gelati is the tiny Motsameta Monastery. Even by Georgian standards its location is spectacular. The church is home to the tomb of two brothers who were killed during an 8th century massacre by the Arabs and who were miraculously carried up to the monastery site by lions. The faithful believe that their tomb grants wishes.

Motsameta monastery has a stunning location on the edge of a gorge above the River Tskaltsitela

As a break from the churches and monasteries we headed out to see the natural beauty of the area north of Kutaisi. Our first destination was the walkway along Okatse Canyon. Unfortunately I can’t tell you much about it as our GPS directed us onto a rough unsurfaced road which was bad enough, but by the time we reached the bridge at the bottom of the valley that it expected us to cross we decided to give it up and head on to our next stop instead.

Rough road detour north of Kutaisi: (top) with hindsight we should have turned around here instead of driving for half an hour to the river where we were forced to retrace our steps rather than crossing this very rickety looking bridge (bottom)

The Prometheus Cave is 1.4km long and the concrete walkway passes through six large chambers full of impressive stalactites and stalagmites. Entry is by guided tour only and we ended up with a Russian group rather than waiting over an hour for an English-speaking one. In the end that was probably better as we didn’t feel obliged to keep up to hear what the guide was saying and just hung back taking photos! Our Lonely Planet describes the lighting in the cave as ‘discreet’, the word I would use is lurid, but I suppose it creates some interesting effects on the rock formations. I found the Vivaldi background music less offensive as it served to dampen the echoes from the large group.

Prometheus Cave (clockwise from left): Andrew admiring some stalactites; the ‘discreet’ lighting on the rock formations; cross-section through a broken stalactite

Our final stop of the day was at the Sataplia Nature Reserve, an area of sub-tropical Colchic forest, home to birds, wildlife, and fossilised dinosaur footprints! Spring flowers were beginning to bloom on the forest floor and with the sun shining it was a very pleasant walk along the trail to the Sataplia Cave, which honestly was not particularly impressive after the Prometheus Cave.

Sataplia Nature Reserve: one minute you’re walking along a woodland path…the next, dinosaurs!

The word Sataplia means ‘place of honey’ and is so called because of the tradition of collecting honey from the bees found in this area. There are a couple of great viewpoints along the trail including a glass floored walkway which reminded us of the glass path that we walked on at Zhangjiajie in China. The one here was closed when we visited but we could get close enough to see the view.

Gorgeous view over Kutaisi and the Lesser Caucasus from Sataplia

The highlight of the Sataplia trail was the well-presented pavilion containing fossilised dinosaur footprints

70km east of Kutaisi is the small mining town of Chiatura. It’s very much off the standard tourist radar but we’d read that there are several still-functioning Soviet era cable cars linking the town centre with the mines and residential areas in the hills above so we stopped off for a brief visit to frighten ourselves with the rickety contraptions.

On the way to Chiatura we visited the Katskhi Pillar, a monastery atop a rocky outcrop. Apparently one monk still lives up there!

The first cable car we rode had a lady operator who was in charge of locking the door and stopping and starting the system. At the top we seemed to have reached a residential area though we didn’t venture far from the station. That car ran at 15 minute intervals and there was no charge or ticket. On the way down we were sharing with (among others) a chatty old lady who wasn’t going to let her lack of English or our lack of either Georgian or Russian stop her from finding out all about us!

Chiatura cable cars (clockwise from left): cable car arriving at the bottom station; inside the cable car, the lady in the leather jacket (centre left) is the operator; the stations must once have been grand but are now in the same level of disrepair as the cable cars

The second cable car we rode was on a particularly steep line. At the top we found a mine entrance and a spectacular view down to the town

Final mention should go to our rental apartment in Kutaisi. We didn’t quite believe the pictures on the booking website but it really was as grand as it looked!

Our rental apartment felt like a stately home!

Travelling in the Georgian Caucasus: Kazbegi and Svaneti

Georgia is a mountainous land.  There’s a low, flattish strip running from the Black Sea in the west to the Azerbaijan border in the south-east, but everywhere else is high ground with the mighty Caucasus mountains forming the country’s northern border with Russia.  Visiting at the end of March we weren’t sure whether the snow would have melted and how accessible the mountains would be but we wanted to try to get to them.

Snowy mountains

Into the mountains! There was still a lot of snow as we crossed the Jvari pass before dropping down a little into Kazbegi

From Sighnaghi we returned to Tbilisi and took another marshrutka along the Georgian Military Highway to Stepantsminda, also known as Kazbegi.  This small town is home to one of the most famous views in the country and if you look at any tourism material about Georgia you’ll almost certainly see a picture of the small monastery perched on a ridge with a towering mountain behind it.  We’d booked rooms in a guesthouse before arriving, saw that it was marked on our offline map and confidently struck out from the bus stop in the centre of town for what looked to be about a five minute walk.

Cloudy Kazbegi view

View from our guesthouse, Homestay Lela and Mari. We originally thought that Mt Kazbek was the snowy section to the right of the monastery, and then we saw the peak poking out from the clouds above!

Suffice to say, the guesthouse wasn’t where the map said, and after knocking on the door of a random lady, walking up and down the street for 20 minutes, bothering several other passersby and three phone calls to the guesthouse who spoke limited English, we were a little nervous about all the trouble we’d caused when our host Gela pulled up next to us in his car. No need to worry! He brushed off our apologies, drove 30 seconds to the house (just round the corner from where the map said it was), presented us with plates full of biscuits and sweets and offered us coffee or tea.  We gratefully accepted a coffee and he confidently added ‘chacha?’  Not wishing to be rude we tentatively accepted a glass of the local firewater, distilled from the second pressing of the grapes, which with Gela’s hospitality swiftly became three and then five shots so that when we later set out to explore the town we were all a little giggly!

Kazbegi

Kazbegi (clockwise from top): the River Terek runs through the town; Soviet era mural adorning the end of a building in the centre; parts of the town are looking a bit run down including this now defunct cable car station

The following morning I woke quite early, peeped around the curtain to see what the weather was like and my jaw dropped.  Mt Kazbek had emerged from the clouds and the pink light of the sunrise was making its way down the peak towards the Gergeti monastery.  We oohed and aahed, taking lots of (almost identical) photos until Gela bundled us all into the car and we sped off up the hill.  We weren’t entirely clear on where we were going but shortly arrived at a small monastery above the town opposite Mt Kazbek. As we got out of the car we saw a young monk hurrying across the snow covered grounds to ring the bell and a few minutes later we were standing at the back of the tiny colourfully frescoed church listening to the monks’ morning prayer chants. Gela gave us each a candle to light and place in front of one of the icons and I said a small thank you to the world for such a magical start to the day.

On our second morning in Kazbegi, Andrew got his camera set up to take a time-lapse of the sunrise.

After breakfast we set off to hike up to the Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity) monastery which we’d been admiring from below since the previous afternoon. We refused the many offers of ‘taxi?’ as we walked through the town, crossed the river and passed through the opposite village of Gergeti. The hike was steep but not difficult and with a few pauses to catch our breath admire the spectacular view we made it up to the monastery in about an hour from the valley floor.

Cows beside the path

Cows beside the path as we pass through Gergeti village on the way to the monastery

Having seen no other tourists on the walk up it was a bit of a shock to find several groups armed with selfie sticks spilling out of cars at the monastery. The church itself is small and architecturally nothing special, it’s really the location that counts here. Even historically, when enemies threatened, the Georgians brought their sacred treasures from Mtskheta and put them in the monastery for safe keeping.

Gergeti Tsminda Sameba church

Andrew, Jo and I in front of the postcard perfect view of Gergeti Tsminda Sameba church

Gergeti Tsminda Sameba monastery

The Gergeti Tsminda Sameba monastery really does have a stunning location

Thermal pool near Kazbegi

On our second day in Kazbegi we walked along the valley to the village of Pansheti. On the way we passed this swimming pool fed from a mineral spring

Overnight train to Zugdidi at Tbilisi station

We took the afternoon marshrutka back to Tbilisi in time to catch the overnight train to Zugdidi. We love sleeping in the rocking motion of a slow train but this one would have been a bit more comfortable if they’d turned the heating down a few notches

We arrived in Zugdidi in north-western Georgia at 6am after an uncomfortably hot overnight train journey.  From there it was a three hour marshrutka ride up increasingly twisty roads with increasingly stunning views to Mestia, the main town of the Svaneti region.  The Svaneti region of the Caucasus has its own distinct culture, food, traditions and even language, and the Svan people are very proud that they’ve never been ruled by outsiders.  The most obvious and distinctive part of their culture are the defensive towers.

Mestia

Mestia and its distinctive defensive towers

We’d seen an example of a Svan tower at the Ethnographic Museum in Tbilisi but here we were able to go inside and climb up to the top even sticking our head through the roof hatch in one case! Some levels had stone floors and others wood but each was small and had bare stone walls.  The tradition of the towers dates back to the Middle Ages and each family had its own attached to the main living hall to be used for protection of the owners and their animals in case of attack from invaders or raiders.  Some of the towers were also used for signalling with fires being lit in a chain down the valley to warn of an impending attack. The excellent museum in Mestia had an exhibit of photographs taken by Italian Vittorio Sella in the 1890s and the town’s architecture is still recognisable 125 years later.

Svan towers (clockwise from left): the tower entrance is part way up the side to aid with defence; Jo climbing up one of the ladders, stone slabs would be used to close these holes in case of attack; only the top floor of the tower has windows

Although Mestia is at roughly the same altitude as Kazbegi, around 1500m, the sunny spring weather that we’d experienced in the eastern mountains didn’t quite seem to have arrived here yet.  There was still snow on the ground and on our second day we were more or less snowed in as the fluffy flakes fell continuously from early morning to late evening.  We ventured out for a walk to the cathedral (locked) and for lunch at a local cafe but mostly we just holed up in our guesthouse around the cosy wood burning stove.

Holed up in the guesthouse on a snowy day in Mestia

Fortunately by the following morning the sun had appeared and was starting to lift the clouds from the mountains.  We’d arranged a trip to Ushguli, a UNESCO listed village further into the mountains with Vakho, our guesthouse owner’s brother.  Also joining us were a Korean woman and a Japanese man who we’d met in town.  It’s a rough road passable only by 4WD vehicles even in the summer and the 47km (29 miles) takes over 2 hours to drive.  We reached a point where no other vehicles had driven and were cruising along downhill when suddenly a Russian made jeep flew around the corner ahead of us. CRUNCH! There was nowhere for us to go and the front corner and headlight unit of our Mitsubishi was caved in by the impact.

Crash on the snowy road to Ushguli

Luckily no-one was hurt and the engine wasn’t damaged so after a short while we were back on our way though Vakho was understandably upset at the damage which would likely cost him significantly more to fix than the 200GEL that we were paying him for the day’s excursion. There’s no car insurance here and the other vehicle’s owner didn’t seem to be overly concerned about helping out though technically it was his fault as he was driving uphill.

The previous day’s snow made the view from the road to Ushguli even prettier

The community of Ushguli stands at the foot of Mt Shkhara, Georgia’s highest peak, and is made up of five villages, one of which was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1996 as an “exceptional example of mountain scenery with medieval-type villages and tower-houses”. At an altitude of between 2060 and 2200m it also lays claim to being the highest permanently (i.e. year round) inhabited settlement in Europe. It must be a difficult place to live, bitterly cold in the winter (it was bad enough in late March), two hours on a bad road to the nearest small town, and five or more to anything bigger, the people must be hardy and self-sufficient in ways that are difficult for us to imagine.

The villages of Ushguli, in the foreground UNESCO listed Chazhashi, with Chvibiani behind

One Svan culinary specialty is the kubdari, similar to the cheese-filled khachapuri found in the rest of Georgia, but stuffed with seasoned meat.  In Ushguli we got an impromptu cooking lesson from a cafe owner as we watched her make pies for our lunch. I suspect that getting the filling to stay neatly inside the dough is not nearly as easy as she made it look. Once made, the kubdari were cooked on top of and then inside the traditional wood-fired stove which is the heart of every Svan home and kitchen.

Making kubdari in Ushguli

Cafe owner making kubdari, Svan meat pie, in Ushguli

After lunch, Vakho and the cafe owner scrambled the security guard and museum keeper to open the small ethnographic museum up for us. Located in a fat tower in Chazhashi, it houses treasures from Ushguli’s seven churches including gold and silver chalices, icons and crosses as well as jewellery and drinking horns.

Ushguli ethnographic museum

Emerging from the museum we trudged through the snow a little further along the street when we heard loud barking and saw an enormous Caucasian shepherd dog bearing down on us. A woman shouted at him but we beat a hasty retreat all the same. The dogs in the streets of both Ushguli and Mestia are quite intimidating. Not so bad if it’s a cute waddling sausage dog, but others are descended from the mountain dogs bred to protect the sheep from wolves and bears and could do quite a bit of damage if they felt so inclined. Locals told us that they are generally safe as the dogs have learnt that tourists will give them food but I didn’t enjoy having a pack follow us around especially as we had no intention of feeding them.

Our tour group in Ushguli (left to right): Julie, Andrew, Jo, Masato, Hyunja

Feral dogs aside, the mountains were a highlight of the trip for all of us and we vowed to return in the summer for some hiking!

Mtskheta, Georgia

On our final day in Tbilisi we took the short marshrutka (minibus) trip north to Mtskheta, spiritual home of Georgian Christianity and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  First stop was the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral which dominates the small town’s centre.

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta. We noticed that a lot of Georgian churches have little model churches on their roof ridges and this one is no exception

Svetitskhoveli means ‘Life-Giving Column’, a reference to the legend surrounding the building of the first cathedral on this site in the 4th century. Long before, the robe from Christ’s crucifixion was brought to Mtskheta by a local Jew and ended up buried nearby although the site had been forgotten by the time King Mirian, Georgia’s first Christian king, had been converted and decided to build a cathedral here.  When they tried to raise the cathedral’s central pillar it could not be lifted from the ground, but after much praying by St Nino (more about her presently) the pillar moved of its own accord to stand over the spot where Christ’s robe was buried.

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral Interior

There are some beautiful frescoes inside the cathedral

We loved the cathedral’s decoration, with the Christ fresco in the apse reminding us of churches we’d seen in Sicily, notably Cefalù and Monreale, and the icons with hanging lamps in front. The gravestones in the floor give hints as to the history of the area and the different rulers who have had influence here at various times, we spotted several Cyrillic (Russian) and Arabic, as well as ancient and modern Georgian scripts. In one of the side aisles there’s a copy of the Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem erected to mark Svetitskhoveli as the second most holy place in the world (after the original chapel) and today visited by many Georgians who are not able to travel to Jerusalem.

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (clockwise from top left): Jo and I had to don headscarves and apron-like ‘skirts’ before we could enter (Andrew just had to take off his hat); the original ‘Life-Giving Column’ was on the site of this monument; as you might expect St George is a common subject for icons all around Georgia

After visiting the cathedral we were starting to get hungry. The Lonely Planet told us that lobio, casseroled kidney beans with herbs and spices, are a specialty in Mtskheta so that was what we sought out. They’re served in individual clay pots and were even tastier than we expected. With some bread and salad they made for a nutritious and cheap lunch!

Lobio

Lobio for lunch in a Mtskheta cafe

After lunch we made our way to the Jvari Church, sitting on a ridge over the town.  As the crow flies it’s not far, but to get there by road it’s 11km each way and, as it’s not served by public transport, most visitors take a taxi.  But that’s not our style, it was a glorious day and a bit of exercise would do us good, so we checked with the helpful lady in the Tourist Information Office who informed us that it was possible to walk there in about an hour.  The only hitch was crossing the dual carriageway that separates the town from the hill where the church is.  Fortunately the road wasn’t too busy, the visibility was good and there was a nice high central reservation to wait on in the middle, still it wasn’t the nicest road crossing we’ve ever done – though less stressful than navigating the hundreds of teeming scooters in Vietnam!

View of Mtskheta from Jvari church

From the Jvari church there’s a spectacular view of Mtskheta and the confluence of the Aragvi (blue) and Mtkvari (grey) rivers

The Jvari Church itself is small and simply constructed but very holy for Georgians as it stands on the site where King Mirian erected a wooden cross soon after his conversion by St Nino in around 327AD. St Nino was a missionary from a Greek-speaking Roman family. Reputedly related to St George, she travelled to Georgia from Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) and became one of the most important saints in the Georgian Orthodox church. Her grapevine cross is a symbol of Georgian Christianity, and Nino is a very popular girls name too – it sometimes seemed like every other local woman we met was called Nino!

Jvari church

The small and symmetrical Jvari church

It was extremely windy on the ridge outside the church though the view was worth being blown about for. The inside is a big contrast to the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, with bare stone walls rather than frescoes, the small circular space is dominated by a large wooden cross, and there’s a rather sombre atmosphere with a black-clad old lady shushing anyone who speaks too loudly.

Jvari church

Jvari church (clockwise from top): the church stands on a ridge across the river from Mtskheta town; a representation of the cross of St Nino; inside the church is dominated by a large wooden cross

Armenia Round Up

What photo takes you right back to Armenia?

Us at Zorats Karer

Us at Zorats Karer. Just one of the many spectacular sights that we had to ourselves in Armenia.

Summarise Armenia in three words.

  • Khachkar – the carved stone crosses are everywhere in the country, especially in graveyards and on church walls
  • Pothole – we really enjoyed having a car to explore some of the out of the way corners of Armenia but driving required a lot of concentration as even the main roads had some impressive potholes!
  • History – we found the depth and breadth of history in this small country staggering – from ancient standing stones to medieval monasteries to 20th century tragedy and politics

You really know you’re in Armenia when…

…your guesthouse seems to be doing their best to overfeed you! We didn’t know much about Armenian food before we arrived so it was a pleasant surprise to find something akin to a mixture of eastern Mediterranean and northern European cuisines. Just as well as our hosts regularly plied us with more food than we could possibly manage.

What one item should you definitely pack when going to Armenia?

Your thermals. Pretty much the whole country is at high altitude so if you’re travelling in the winter or early spring as we did you’ll need some warm clothes – it gets bitterly cold.