Day 2: Left Tibilisi
Mtskheta, the spiritual heart of Georgia: Before we got to the city we stopped at the 6th century Jvari church – this is on a hilltop, visible for miles around, and with beautiful views over Mtskheta and the convergence of the two rivers running through the town. This was the first Georgian church we had seen and we immediately noticed the difference – here there were icon paintings but no frescos. At the church gate there were souvenir stalls – this happened at every church but because this was the first time, we really noticed it. They were selling mountain wool hats – they are made of real wool – but Nick said they stink so we didn’t even try them on – in some places they charge for photos taken wearing a wool hat. It would look as though you had half a long fleece sheep curled up on your head!
The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, Mtskheta: Considered to be the most sacred place in Georgia the 9th C basilica contains the grave of Sidonia, who was said to have been buried holding Christ’s robe. It was an enormous building for its time, with a defensive wall built in 1787. The Cathedral had beautiful painted frescoes dating back to the 11th C. They have not been restored as have many of the frescoes in the Russian churches we saw last year, and are somewhat faded, almost more beautiful because of that, and because of their authenticity. We were allowed to take photos inside which wasn’t always the case – so long as we don’t take photos of the priests. There were some wonderful carvings on the outside of the cathedral and Nick told us the stories that go with them.
We stopped at Gori, Stalin’s birthplace, to change money and have lunch. Judy and I went to one bank, and others went to another bank. I had only US$110 to change but the rigmarole that Judy and I had to go through to get this changed was as much as if it had been $10,000 – I had a new girl and my transaction took at least 10 minutes longer than Judy’s – and we were there for half an hour. The others didn’t have any such problem. They needed all my details, home address, phone number etc – my girl had to ask Judy’s girl if New Zealand was a country – when it got to the city, I just wrote it down, I didn’t want to try and explain Bulls!
Uplistikhe – the cave town: This is where an entire town of streets, churches, palaces and residential buildings was carved into the side of a hill. Dating from the first millennium BC, when its temples were dedicated to the sun goddess, and where both animal and child sacrifices were a part of the rituals, it gradually grew to be an important Christian city on the trade route linking Byzantium with India and China. At some point in the past earthquakes have caused the outside rock face to collapse, so what we saw as outside rooms, would have originally been interior rooms.
To get to the city we climbed a very steep flight of stairs within a tunnel, then negotiated the steep sandstone rocks with the help of an enterprising local elderly man who seemingly appeared out of nowhere with a helping hand for everyone over the more difficult parts. Judy and I tipped him at the end but I think some of the others thought (as I did until I asked Nick) that he was just there to help. Nick told us he would now never bring a group there if it had been raining, as on one wet trip, a woman slipped and broke her leg. Not a sensible thing to do in the middle of Georgia up a steep cliff where you would have to be carried back down over slippery rocks! I was very thankful for my sensible Ecco sandals, but I saw one guide wearing shoes with heels!
On the way to the entrance we had passed a group of tourists who were enjoying a very expensive looking picnic lunch – and then when we got to the top, in the amphitheatre there were more of this group (Germans) being serenaded by a local quartet all the way from Tbilisi. Nick was amazed and commented on the probable cost of it! When the quartet had finished and were leaving, Nick overheard them saying “Where did they find so many old people?” before they literally skipped down the mountain, so happy to be away from all those grey hairs!
Obviously the original inhabitants did not have the benefit of the steel staircase, so access to the city was very difficult but this protected the city from invaders. In those times the tunnel led to the main gate in the defensive walls. Most of the city was destroyed by the Mongols in 1240, and what remains is about half of the original city uncovered by archaeologists in the 1950s.
On the way to Kutaisi (about a 3 hour drive) we passed a lot of trucks on their way to Turkey – Georgia is used as a through way to Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran and Armenia.
This western area of Georgia was very industrialised in Soviet times – after the collapse, those factories were closed, and sold to private interests who then stripped the factories, making millions in the process – many of the Russian oligarchs made their money this way. It was much hotter on the western side, and there were a lot more forests. Cows wander freely on the roads in all of Georgia – not on the main highways, but on all the side roads.
We stayed in Kutaisi for 2 nights in a local guesthouse. We had to walk from the end of the road as the road was being renovated – all our luggage turned up in one taxi – I hate to think what that amount of luggage weighed and what it was doing to the springs.
Kutaisi has always been an important town and for many years was the capital of Georgia, while Tbilisi was occupied by the Arabs.
We were offered an optional full day tour to Butami on the Black Sea coast but I didn’t want to spend another 6 hours on the bus but 13 of the tour went. Five of us stayed in Kutaisi and oddly, even in that city, without planning, we ended up at the same restaurant for lunch.
Bagrati Cathedral: Close to where we were staying – it was originally just ruins, but has been totally renovated – only opened a few months ago. There was local controversy about the extent of the renovations but I think it is much better for the community to have a working church than a pile of ruins.
Market: I spent a very happy hour or so in the local market – first of all, just taking photos of what was on the stalls; the vegetables were mainly salad vegetables – it was too early in the season for healthy looking cauliflowers, cabbages, carrots, beetroot and broccoli – I did see a few of these but what I did see didn look very appetising. I saw one stall that had raw chickens sitting outside, unrefrigerated and uncovered! But at least not in the sun!!!
There were so many stalls of cucumbers, red and green capsicums of different shapes and sizes, green sweet chilli peppers, flat green beans, garlic, egg plants, peas both in the pod and podded, tomatoes, large bulbed spring onions (or maybe young normal onions), brown onions, radishes, salad leaves and herbs – dill and flat leaf parsley were the most common, and several others I didn’t know – one herb seller cut the end of the stalks to release the aroma so I could smell it – one seemed like a water cress and the other smelled of aniseed. Potatoes were sold on separate stalls to the salad type vegetables. There were stalls with coffee beans, dried beans, nuts (especially walnuts), spices and fruit – big piles of strawberries, and occasional ‘sticks’ of cherries. They tie the cherries together with the stalks. The cheeses were sold in a separate cooler room. Different grains and flours were sold out of big sacks – one smaller bag of what I thought was rock salt, was in fact preservative! I had included the name when I took a photo of it and Nick explained what it was.
There was a line of 5-6 women, who didn’t have their own stalls – they had their bags of herbs or produce on the ground in front of them; one woman was holding a hen and another was holding 5-6 bottles of milk. When I arrived, there was what appeared to be an altercation going on, but it turned out to be negotiations about the price of a bag of herbs (unknown)! I took a photo of the woman holding the hen and she saw me, so I asked (with sign language) if I could take another photo of her – she indicated yes. Then I took a photo of the two women who were arguing with the man about the price he wanted to pay – I got one photo and then, there he was, behind them, included in the second photo – it was so funny when the women realised he was there. After that I wandered some more and asked stall holders if I could take their photos – I always got a yes, and then I would show them the photo. Of course, that meant that further down the stalls someone else wanted their photo taken. One man could speak a tiny bit of English – he indicated his name was John, and he asked me mine which I gave. I wandered to the next stall and the next thing I hear is him calling out to me, “I love you Justine!” I just smiled back at him!
Of course, there were stalls with bread, and other types of fruit – very sad looking apples which is to be expected at the end of the winter. Other things on the stalls were mouse traps and gigantic rat traps – the same style as the mouse traps! And of course, the very effective straw brooms, and one stall with lots of different types of rope.
After the market I wandered around looking for the museum (it had moved and I never found it) and then I recognised two people sitting on the steps (to nowhere it turned out). We chatted for a while then we went our separate ways. After 20 minutes or so I found them again near the Opera House so we decided to have coffee – I bought Clifford a piece of cake as it was his birthday. We stayed there for an hour because just after we arrived there was this altercation (a real one this time – not as in the market) where we think, the wife had discovered the husband drunk and in the company of two young things! It went on for ages, and in the end there were 4-5 police involved. The café had called the police. The wife was yelling and screaming and trying to hit the man even when there was a policeman in between! It went on for over half an hour. We then saw Larry, our US representative, and we went off for lunch to a restaurant recommended in the Lonely Planet book. Just as we got there, suddenly, John the leprechaun, was there – I almost walked into him. I called him The Leprechaun and (1) he was Irish and (2) you could never be sure if he was telling the truth or not! So we all ended up in the restaurant.
We had another combined meal at the guest house that night and as it was Clifford’s birthday, we had birthday cake! Those who had gone to Butami had enjoyed their day but equally, I felt I had been more in touch with the locals than they had.
Continued in next post.