Crossing the road border into Georgia from Azerbaijan was my first experience of walking through a border. We got off the bus in Azerbaijan, joined the queue at the border post to have passports and baggage examined. We then walked across a bridge and along a road, bordered by a fast flowing river, to the Georgian border post.
Another queue, another passport check, and we walked into Georgia.
What could be more appropriate, and what could set the scene better for the joy of Georgia than a visit to a historic wine house.
This wine house contained a wine press, said to be 2 centuries old, earthern crocks in which wine would have been fermented and traditional wine making equipment. An old still in the wine house is still used for making chacha – a Georgian version of grappa.
A sip, or maybe more, of chacha followed by wine tasting left me unable to actually remember what the chacha actually tasted like. It was strong. Floating would be a polite way to describe my next few hours.
I floated through magnificent scenery. Snow capped mountains to the right, fertile plains, sheep and goats wandering about. Pomegranites in flower, copious mulberry trees. Watermelons, cucumber and beans were being planted. A large number of horses were being herded by a man on a horse and a young boy running. Beehives scattered about.
The next day we were driving through oak and linden forests on our way to Sighnaghi. There are a lot of churches in Georgia. I think we visited half a dozen or more of them that day. All very beautiful, and some with interesting art and history. The first church of the day, at the convent of the Khakhuli Theotokos, New Shuamata, it felt as if we were entering a little paradise. The convent was set in a field of wildflowers, bordered by tall trees. The church was tiny, with the remains of old frescoes on the walls.
I am very keen on St George and his dragon slaying activities. I have enjoyed viewing a large and varied number of St George depictions, killing all manner of dragons, and occasionally Diocletian, in numerous countries. I was delighted to find a depiction of St George and the dragon, with god’s hand descending from the top corner, in this church.
A candle was lit for Jonathen in this serene and beautiful place. Under the influence of such serenity, I purchased a couple of icons. These eventually ended up on Sal’s market stall, at which she sells all manner of things to raise money for Jigsaw the moon bear. Sal sounded a little doubtful about their saleability, but she kindly took them off my hands.
Another St George was found at the Ikalto Monastery complex in the church of the Transfiguration, killing a multicoloured dragon. Among the ruins of the old chapel further evidence of historical wine making was visible. Rows of old pottery wine jars were lying against the old stone walls, and the remains of an old wine press could be found in the old winery.
Onward to the next establishment – The Alaverdi cathedral. The cathedral had a St George, killing yet another dragon on the tympaneum. The bishop’s throne was magnificent. It had lion arms, and a big bird on the footplate. Wine was also produced here, as evidenced by the old pottery wine jars lying about.
We went to Lily’s place for lunch. Since we were tourists, we had to sing for our supper. That is, we had to view Lily’s carpets before eating. Lunch was magnificent. Dumplings, cheese pie, eggplant with walnut paste, eggplant with mayonnaise, tomatoes which tasted like tomatoes, vodka and honey and home made wine. I suspected I may be floating permanently in Georgia.
After lunch we passed through more magnificent scenery. Braided rivers flowing down from the Caucasus, walnut farms, vineyards (well of course) farms with crops of corn and beans, and shepherds watching their flocks – generally from a horizontal position under a tree.
Just as the effects of Lily’s vodka and home made wine was wearing off, we arrived at the Tsinandali Estate, a historical winery and an old wine cellar containing wine dating back to Napolean’s time. A wine tasting followed by a float around a European style garden, and a Persian style house, fortified me for the drive to Signagi.
The landscape passing by was lovely enough to stave off any eyelid closing, even for the most avid wine taster. We drove through very fertile plains, a lot of little villages where the gardens contained beautiful roses, and then a rather hilly area with a narrow winding road containing a lot of nasty narrow hairpin bends. Sighnaghi is entered on a narrow road through an arch in the old city wall. Watching large vehicles negotiate this entry later in the day I thought it a miracle that the archway had not been involuntarily enlarged.
A night in the picturesque town of Sighnaghi included more wine tasting, walks around cobblestone streets, lined with houses whose wooden balconies, some richly decorated with lacelike wooden ornamentation, hung out over the street. Pigs were snorting and grunting in courtyards, and a laneway opened onto a view across the plains to the snow capped mountains. Carpets were inspected at the local factory, and the obligatory carpet weaver was wheeled in to sit at a loom to illustrate traditional carpet weaving. Of course the carpets are all made by hand, dyed with natural dyes and made with traditional Georgian patterns!
An excellent St George killing Diocletion featured in the church in the Bodbe Nunnery complex near Sighnaghi. Another delight was a depiction of the last judgment – I find last judgments endlessly fascinating. I am intrigued by the different visions of heaven and hell over the centuries. None of them have pleasant hells, but some are more gruesome than others. The visions of heaven are not particularly encouraging either. Sitting about looking sweet and maybe flapping ones wings for exercise for eternity doesn’t seem enticing either.
Tbilisi provided the opportunity to discover more churches and several museums. The State museum was the most interesting. It contained an archaeological room, full of gold recovered from graves over about 4 centuries. It is interesting to view the changes in jewellery design and use over the centuries.
The old city is a great place to explore, have a coffee and people watch, rounded off by a visit to a mosque, the sulphur bath houses and a synagogue. The sculptures in the streets in Tbilisi varied between the usual memorials to blokes, sometimes on poles and one on a horse to modern, some of artistic merit and others not, but all interesting. My all time favourite was one of the most joyful depictions of women having fun I have ever seen – dancing peasant women.
Despite my best endeavours, I only discovered two St Georges. A glittering gilded version of St George on top of a pole, and a painting above a church door. There may well have been further wine tastings.
The Jvari Monastery of Mtskheta (the ancient capital of Georgia), on the road to Kutaisi had a very rude monk guarding the door. The view which overlooked Mtskheta and the confluence of two rivers made up for the less than welcoming attitude of Mr Grumpy monk. Another grumpy monk was sprawled on the steps of Svetitskhoveli cathedral in Mtskheta, taking photos with an ipad, and talking on his phone, ignoring all “pilgrims”.
Stalin was born in Gori. I did not find Gori joyful. I would have happily sat and read a book rather than visiting the Stalin museum, his birthplace and his private railway carriage. I became grumpy. I did not go into the railway carriage. I stalked around the museum, all exhibits seemingly glorifying Stalin. On enquiring whether there was anything to see that did not glorify him, I was directed to the basement, where a couple of rooms had been set up, showing a jail cell, an interrogation area and posters on the walls describing vast numbers of people killed.
The Uplistsikhe cave town resored my joy, though it too had its horror spots. The places where humans and animals were sacrificed, a one person jail, being a narrow deep hole in a rock, where a prisoner had to stand all the time. Exiting the cave town through a long tunnel which bought us to the river, we were now entering Jason and the Argonaughts country.
Driving to Kutaisi we passed through chestnut and hazelnut forests, wooded hills and sparkling rivers in deep gorges. Pottery workshops and markets were abundant, the potters attracted by the clay soils. We visited the house of a pottery maker, and watched him make a wine jug and a bean pot. A glass of homemade wine was provided. The potter acquires the clay from the hill behind his house. He had a woodfired kiln, and his garden contained fruit trees, vegetables, and a pig sty with two baby piglets. Roadside snacks of sweet bread, still warm from the oven, and cheese pie cooked on a bbq were consumed.
Kutaisi and its surroundings have plenty of churches and monasteries, all of which were duly examined. The Cathedral of the Virgin at Gelati, a monastery complex on a wooded hillside contained an 1130’s mosaic of the virgin and child and archangels Michael and Gabriel. The big wooden front door to the complex had what appeared to be a rather large dog door cut into it. Apparently the reason for the dog door is to allow people in and to stop cows.
The agricultural markets offered a vast array of fresh food. Every herb I knew, and plenty that I didn’t, different types of potato, and all the varieties of fruit, nuts, beans and vegetables imaginable.
We were staying in a guest house on top of a hill, with lovely views across the town for some, and a lovely view of the verandah of the house next door for me, which seemed to contain a large lady, dressed in black, asleep on a couch – well I prefer to think she was asleep, and not dead, but she didn’t move for hours.
Jason and the Argonaughts were commermorated by a fun fountain, containing bright sparkling gilded horses, and golden fleece.
As the guesthouse did not serve alcohol, I went down into the town with Sal to hunt and gather wine, this being Georgia after all. While in town we had one of those lovely unexpected unplanned experiences – a puppet theatre about to start a rehearsal. We were invited to watch the rehearsal. The puppets were delightful, and although we couldn’t understand a word being said, we could follow the story. A fox kidnapped a chicken. The chicken’s rabbit friends put on a disguise and visited the foxes house, lulling the fox by singing to him. Fox is then pushed into a bag, and chicken rescued. The music was good, and the fox had the best tail ever, big red and bushy.
The next day we were leaving for Armenia, via Tbilisi, the third country to explore in the Caucasus.
So ended the visit to Georgia, such a happy bountiful destination.