9 September 2013. We drove out of Tbilisi following the small roads towards the southeast, a beautiful trip through rolling hills and highland steppe. On the way, we passed the ancient cave monastery of Vardzia. Not as impressive as Davit Gareja, but still worth a visit if you are passing by.
But we did not sleep alone! These two dogs “adopted” us as their temporary parents no matter how much Malene tried to shooh them away. They slept under the car (it was raining a lot) and at times during the night we could feel the vibrations from a deep “grrrrrrrr” under the car when the dogs heard something suspicious out there in the darkness.
7-9 September 2013. Finally, after driving around Georgia for a week, we ended up in Tbilisi. And it is different, as are all capitals!
Davit Gareja Cave Monasteries
6 September 2013. Davit Gareja is a fantastic historic site of ancient cave monasteries south of Tbilisi, on the border to Azerbaijan. The first monastery was founded here in the 6th century. Through history, the monks went through much hardship: They had their monasteries destroyed by the mongols, then by Timur and finally 6000 monks were slaughtered by the Persian army of Shah Abbas. During the Soviet era the monasteries were vandalised. Now only one monastery is inhabited but you can visit the old cave monasteries right on the border to Azerbaijan.
Khaketi – The Wine Region of Georgia
5-6 September 2013. Khaketi is the wine producing region of Georgia, to the southeast of Tbilisi. The broad Alazani Valley is dotted with vineyards. The biggest market for Georgian wine used to be Russia, who took about 80% of Georgias wine exports until 2006 when Russia banned all import of Georgian wine. Georgia claimed it was politically motivated to punish the country for its pro-western policies. Russia said that Georgian wines made for Russia were regularly falsified and that they found them full of pesticides. This year, 2013, Russia has allowed some import of Georgian wine again, but the production and export of Georgian wine is still much, much lower than it was before the Russian ban. So when driving through the region today, it seems a bit sleepy and empty.
We slept with a view over the valley to mountains of Dagestan and the next morning we visited Sighnaghi, a lovely hilltop town with “an italian feel” as the guidebook writes. For once we had to agree!
5 September 2013. The town of Mtskheta, close to Tbilisi, is were Christianity was established in Georgia in around 327. It has also been the capital of eastern Georgia for a long period around 3rd century BC to 5th century AD. The town has some of the oldest and most significant churches in Georgia. Furthermore, it is famous for its “lobio”, the Georgian bean stew!
Stalin & Georgia
4 September 2013. Stalin was born in Gori, Georgia, on 18 December 1878. He was born into a poor and uneducated family and he rose to become the leader of the biggest and one of the most powerful nations on earth. Fascinating, one has to admit. He also has to take the blame for some 20 millions deaths in war, famine and forced labour camps. And he did not spare his motherland Georgia when it came to repression. An interesting character if not very likable! So a visit to Georgia has to include a visit to the Stalin Museum in Gori.
2-3 September 2013. Svaneti is a beautiful and quite remote region in the northwestern part of Georgia, bordering Russian Caucasus to the north. It is famous for its ancient villages, buried deep in the mountains of the Great Caucasus, and for its tall stone watch towers.
The next morning we tried to reach the remote village of Ushguli, located about 3 hours drive from Mestia along a dirt road. Unfortunately it had been raining heavily the night before and we were just a few kilometers from Ushguli when we were stopped by a queue of cars. The road was blocked. The had been a rock slide over part of the road, which runs along a small but fierce river. A minibus had tried to pass but the remaining part of the road was too narrow so one wheel went out over the edge of the road towards the river and then he was stuck there. We turned around. It had started raining again and it seemed like it could take hours if not days to get the road cleared.
31 August – 1 September 2013. We exited Russia and entered Georgia through the Verkhny Lars border crossing, one of the fastest and easiest border crossings of our trip. Just 15 km south of the border we stopped in Kazbegi for the night. The streets were full of young western tourists, so different from Russian Caucasus! And we ate our first “khachapuri” in a small stylish cafe before going to the free camping area just on the other side of the river from the village. Our fist impressions is that everything is very safe, very relaxed and the food is very nice!
The next day was very grey, but we had to go and visit one of the landmarks of Georgia, the 14th century Tsminda Sameda Church, which stands on a hilltop above Kazbegi.
In good weather you would be able to see the 5,047 m high Mount Kazbek behind the church but the day we went it was very grey. No photos were allowed inside the church but it was lovely with its rough stone walls. We were lucky to enter while there was a small mass going on with the monotonous recital of the priest enhancing the atmosphere.
We turned west before Tbilisi and drove through Kutaisi towards Zugdidi. Close to Kutaisi the traffic was very heavy with trucks and lots of cars but close to Zugdidi it became more pleasant. Below a peaceful moment in the late afternoon on the Georgian roads.
From Zugdidi, we took the smaller road leading into the northern Svaneti district in the heart of the Georgian Great Caucasus. The road was in quite good shape and the trip took about 3 hours including some waiting for road works. Just pay attention to falling rocks and cows on the road.