In the Museum Nan Eilean we’d seen a photo and some drawings of a stone structure that we didn’t recognise, and so with our ferry leaving Stornoway early afternoon we had some time (if not the weather) for a final wee jaunt in the morning to make the most of our last day in the Outer Hebrides.
Memorial Cairn to the Grias & Coll Raiders, March 1919
The plaque nearby reads:
This memorial commemorates the events following the First World War, then returning servicemen took the law into their own hands and claimed the land that the government had promised them.
It is built at the place of confrontation between the crofters of the area and Lord Leverhulme, the owner of Lewis and Harris at that time.
Conflict arose when Leverhulme bought Lewis and Harris in 1918. He planned to industrialise Lewis and opposed the Board of Agriculture’s scheme to divide some of the farms into crofts for landless families.
In March 1919, some of the biggest land raids took place at the farms of Upper Coil and Gress. Land raiding continued throughout Lewis until 1921, when a disillusioned Leverhulme gave up his industrial projects for good. As a result, many people without work emigrated to Canada.
The government finally kept their promise to meet the demand crofts, and the people won the right to the land.
Before he left the island in 1923, Lord Leverhulme gifted the parish of Stornoway to the people, it is now run on their behalf by the Stornoway Trust.
While we were researching its location, we found that these memorial cairns are dotted around Lewis so we were surprised we hadn’t come across them. Then we found they’re of various different designs and we had seen one on the route – the one for the Pairc Cairn Deer Raiders.
Sheltering from the weather with a coffee and cake in Stornoway while we wait for our ferry
While waiting for our ferry we found out that the strike action by ScotRail was extended and as a result our train from Inverness to Edinburgh had been cancelled 2 days prior. Their call centre were very helpful – we were booked to travel on a Sunday, so we could use our ticket for any train on a day either side, and while there were seats for us, there were no bicycle reservations for the Saturday left. LNER have one train which was also fully bicycle-reserved.
Boarding the ferry from Stornoway and the end of our time on the Outer Hebrides.. for now :o)
We’d pre-booked a specialist bike transfer from Ullapool to Inverness with the excellent (in service and in name) Ticket to Ride, and spent the time thinking of ideas for getting us and our bikes home: car hire – ~£200 but none available; van hire – same; turn up at the train station and hope for a bicycle cancellation; coach – ~£50 a last resort and we’d have to pack up the bikes into boxes or bubblewrap; courier the bikes – ~£30 each packed up again, and we would have to impose on our lovely AirBnB hosts in Inverness for storage…
The excellent Ticket to Ride collecting us and two fellow Hebridean Way cyclists from Ullapool – hi Charlie and Alice!
Anyway, cutting a long story short, we decided that we’d rather have the full Saturday to explore Inverness, and ended up booking a taxi-friend of a taxi-friend of Ticket to Ride to take us and the bikes to Edinburgh to meet our onward connection home.
That first night we had a lovely evening at the Black Isle Brewery bar with Charlie and Alice drinking beer, eating pizza and talking cycles and holidays! As is so often the case, we came away from one trip with more ideas & recommendations for future ones!
Our day in Inverness, clockwise from top-left: Inverness Botanical Gardens; the view from the top of Tomnahurich Cemetery; real ales and wood-fired pizza (heaven!) at the Black Isle Brewery Bar – so good we went twice; Leakey’s book shop (also heaven!)
We knew that the ride to Stornoway wasn’t too long and as the weather didn’t look too bad we decided to pop into some of the nearby attractions that we’d skipped due to lack of time on the previous 2 days. First up was the Norse mill & kiln just outside Shawbost. It’s a short walk over a hill from the roadside car park, but by this point in the trip we were fairly blasé about leaving our bikes and all our stuff and didn’t even lock the back wheels. Crime on the islands is low and several locals told us that they never lock their front doors and that keys are left in the ignition of parked cars! The mill and kiln are a reconstructed site and we spent a while figuring out how the mill worked before we found the information leaflet explaining it inside.
Norse mill and kiln
Just a few miles down the road is the Arnol blackhouse, another reconstructed site but this time a proper museum. Sadly not open on the day we visited so we read the information board outside and wandered through the unreconstructed blackhouse ruins opposite. Blackhouses were the traditional form of dwelling for hundreds of years in the Hebrides and humans and animals shared the space. They didn’t have chimneys, this made the home easier to keep warm, the smoke killed bugs and the smoky thatch was a good fertiliser for the fields.
Arnol blackhouse (clockwise from top-left): the museum blackhouse; cut peats for the fire; unreconstructed blackhouse room; and entrance
Having enjoyed both of those sites more than we’d expected we decided to carry on past the turning for Stornoway to investigate a sign that we’d seen to another stone circle during our return from the Butt of Lewis. The weather was starting to come in and by the time we reached the Steinacleit circle parking area visibility was poor, it was raining lightly, midges were about and we were feeling a bit sorry for ourselves.
The “circle” itself was disappointing after what we’d seen around Callanish, no excavations have been done and the best theory for the stones is that they are the remains of a prehistoric farm
The weather improved as we rode over the moor to Stornoway, and it was totally still so that the small lochs we passed looked like mirrors in the heather. It was beautiful but there’s not much photographic evidence of this part of the ride as the midges descended within seconds of pulling over, this also meant that we didn’t want to stop for lunch so we were starving hungry by the time we arrived at the campsite at the edge of town. Again the weather forecast for the following day looked poor and so we upgraded from the camping field to a couple of beds in the bunkhouse. Because of covid, rooms were reserved for household bubbles so we had a 4-bed room to ourselves as well as access to a shared kitchen and lounge – relative luxury for our last couple of nights in the Hebrides!
We finished the day with a delicious dinner at Harbour Kitchen
When we were planning our trip to Georgia I’d wanted to include some time in the Black Sea beach resort city of Batumi even though Julie, Jo and I aren’t really beach people, and by that I mean that we prefer a hike, city walk or good museum to a sun lounger. Not that sunbathing was on the cards in late March as it would have been far too cold!
Batumi: Georgia’s beach resort. No fine sand but it is clean and over 6km long
With much of the same reasoning behind hiring a car in Armenia, having picked up another in Kutaisi meant it was easier to justify a couple of nights in Batumi as there were a few sights we’d read about that piqued our curiosity, such as the Black Sea Boulevard, a tower with a ferris wheel at the top (how does that work? – we had to find out!) and the region’s khachapuri speciality is the iconic bread-boat filled with cheese and topped with an egg. Much like Naples being the home of pizza and serving the best we’ve had, would this be our home of khachapuri?
There it is – the ferris wheel at the top of the tallest building in Georgia. Originally built as a Technology University, it is currently destined to become a hotel
Batumi is the third largest city in Georgia and it is easy to see that the laid back vibe is popular with Georgians, Armenians, Russians and Turks alike. Accommodations a-plenty (and really cheap off season) running the whole spectrum from self-service apartments to international luxury hotel chains and they’re building new apartment blocks at an impressive rate too.
Batumi’s Old Town has a medieval fairground attraction quality to it
We started our tour of the city in the respectfully renovated Evropas Moedani or Europe Square, consisting of lovely two-tone brick buildings set around a large open square with one of those ground-squirting water features you can play chicken with and a tall statue of a woman holding a golden fleece. Why’s that you ask? So the story goes, Jason and his 49 Argonauts sailed past Batumi, along the Rioni river a little further up the coast and inland to Kutaisi where they took the Golden Fleece from a dragon. The legend of the Golden Fleece is based in history: Georgians used sheepskins to sift for gold in mountain rivers!
The Medea monument in Europe Square. In Greek mythology, Medea was a daughter of King Aieti, the king of Kolkheti in present day western Georgia. Medea helped Jason to steal the legendary Golden Fleece
Working our way towards the coast we stopped at the Adjara Arts Museum, a nicely sized gallery with a varied collection of Georgian, Russian and European artwork, followed by the Cathedral of the Mother of God in an imposing Gothic Revival style that the Soviets had previously repurposed as a high voltage laboratory!
A solid and varied collection with a couple of standout pieces, such as a bold pomegranate by Kudba and a portrait of 2 old men by Gabashvili
Batumi’s Cathedral of the Mother of God is an impressively imposing Gothic building. No danger danger of high voltage anymore
Batumi’s main attraction is the 6km coastal boulevard, a wide promenade with separate cycle lanes and lined with large, quirky art on the coastline side and impressive hotels and apartment blocks on the other. Crescendoing at the northern end is a wide open space dominated by a large ferris wheel, the other ferris wheel I mentioned earlier that sticks out of the 13th floor of the Batumi Tower – the tallest building in the country – and a monument to Georgian script and culture called the Alphabet Tower.
Batumi’s Boulevard. We reckon it’ll be a lot busier when the weather’s nicer..
Batumi’s Boulevard is lined with quirky art, including these giant shoes that made us all look like midgets, a series of outlined figures with hearts and what we think was a cross between a snail and the ‘@’ symbol
There’s just as much to see at night too, the most impressive illuminated artwork being Ali & Nino (centre) who change colours as they pass through each other!
A special mention goes to the dancing fountains that our guidebook said wouldn’t be running this early in the year so we were very pleasantly surprised when we stumbled upon them. We’ve seen a few water displays set to music and lights before, but these were by far the most coordinated.
Batumi has the best dancing fountains we’ve seen
At this point in our travels around Georgia we’d accomplished our side quest of trying all of the styles of khachapuri, the country’s national dish of bread and (typically) cheese. As mentioned, the western region of Adjara is home to the most iconic of khachapuri styles – the Adjaruli khachaphuri..
The Adjaruli – a bread boat filled with molten cheese topped with an egg and an generous knob of butter. Genius.
While the Imeruli and Megruli are available across the country and almost all varieties can be found in Tbilisi, we can confirm that just as for pizza in Naples, the local pride in Batumi makes for the tastiest of the tasty khachapuri. Honourable mention and a close second goes to the meat-filled kubdari we watched being skilfully made in Ushguli.
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.
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.
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 (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 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.
Andrew, Jo and I in front of the postcard perfect view of Gergeti Tsminda Sameba church
The Gergeti Tsminda Sameba monastery really does have a stunning location
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
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 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.
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!
After our day trip to Mtskheta, we ventured a little further afield to the south eastern region of Kakheti which, as well as the following sites, is also famed for its wine. Enroute to our destination of Sighnaghi and straddling the border with Azerbaijan is the 6th century cave monastery of Davit Gareja. Using public transport to get out this way would have doubled the time we needed, so we took the easy option and hired a guide-taxi through our Tbilisi guesthouse.
After a long 2 hour drive through increasingly bleak and sparsely populated land we arrived at the remote monastery of Davit Gareja, a relative oasis compared to the dry and treeless surroundings. Our guide Giorgi explained that as well as carving out their single-cell shelters, the monks used diagonal channels in the rock faces to collect the little rainwater the area gets.
Davit’s cave, most likely dug by himself ~1,500 years ago
We were surprised to find much of this part of the complex is in use; the larger caves looked inhabited, some areas were cordoned off requesting visitors to kindly respect monk’s privacy, and there were about a half-dozen monks saying prayers in the small chapel which made it feel almost bustling.
From the upper courtyard we took an energetic trail up through the monastery, past a few more basic caves and a couple of armed Georgian border guards to the top of the ridge before dropping a little way down the other side. I wasn’t entirely sure why we’d left the monastery and were following a path that is essentially the border with Azerbaijan until we’d gone about 100 meters..
Oh! That’s why! Obviously we knew it was a cave monastery but I had no idea how big it had been and that a lot of the caves had been covered in frescoes painted in the 10th to 13th centuries
Frescoes, frescoes everywhere!
Exploring the frescoes, including the dinner hall (top right) with a depiction of the last supper
We spent a good hour or so working our way along the remains of the frescoed caves, many of which were just open to the elements. It was amazing how well they’d held up to the weather given a lot of walls had fallen away, but it was bittersweet that some Soviet visitors had scratched their names into the plaster.
Soviet era graffiti – it’s a shame but it’s also a reminder of that period in the monastery’s history
The church (right) and bell tower of Bodbe Convent. The grave of St. Nino is inside
From Davit Gareja we drove another 2 hours to reach the outskirts of Sighnaghi. We’d planned to visit Bodbe Convent the following day, but as Giorgi and our fellow tourist Daniel were due to head back to Tbilisi the same day it made sense to include this small but important site in the itinerary. Set amongst tall cypress trees and lush, immaculately kept grounds, the peaceful Bodbe Convent is the final resting place of St. Nino, who converted the King and ultimately Georgia to Christianity.
They’d nearly finished a new cathedral-sized church in the grounds of the convent. It looks almost complete from the outside with a lovely mix of texture and materials but it was still a building site inside
Our base for a couple of nights was Signhaghi, a laid-back, quiet, picturesque hill-top town ringed by a turret studded wall. Given that we’d already done our day’s sightseeing activity before we’d arrived, we took a leisurely wander around the town’s walls which afford spectacular views of the wine growing Alazani valley and Caucasus mountains beyond (when there aren’t clouds in the way!).
One of the few staircases onto the walls around Sighnaghi that aren’t in the round turrets
Just off the main town square is the small but excellent Signhaghi Museum which finishes with a collection of works by the famous pauper painter Pirosmani who was born in Kakheti
After a lazy day of wandering around in the morning and catching up with photos and diary writing in the afternoon we spent the evening indulging in great food and very good, very local wine!
We opted for the wine tasting menu to accompany the food at the renowned Pheasant’s Tears which consisted of 6 wines from vineyards across Georgia
The food we had in Sighnaghi deserves a mention too – we unconsciously ordered fish and chips with our wine tasting – how does the saying go? you can take the British out of Britain..
The Kakheti region makes up about 60% of Georgia’s vineyards and has been a wine producing area for over 8,000 years. To this day the Georgians take enormous pride in their traditional method of natural fermentation in large clay pots called qvevri sunken into the ground. They also use the whole grape – skin and pips – which turns their white wines a rich sunset amber colour, though they’re still light and refreshing. Delicious!