A Travellerspoint blog


Kutaisi - Bagrati - Motsameta - Gelati - Ubisa - Tbilisi

Four Cathedrals and a large lunch

sunny 30 °C
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Checking in on line for our flight back home tomorrow.

Bagrati Cathedral

The 11th century cathedral, now in ruins, is regarded as a masterpiece in the history of medieval Georgian architecture. In 1692, it was devastated in an explosion by the Ottoman troops, who had invaded the then Kingdom of Imereti. The incident caused the cupola and ceiling to collapse. Little is known about how the cathedral originally looked. Recent renovations and the plan to install a modern lift in the church has displeased a great number of people, including UNESCO, who are threatening to remove Bagrati from its Heritage list. I have to say the ultra-modern steel and glass within the ancient relic looked hideously out of place.


As we exited the church, a small, friendly commotion was going on between the priest an a young usher, with a lot of pushing and giggling, as the usher was so obviously keen to do the bell ringing. The priest graciously let the young helper win, and the happy peel of church bells, ever increasing in speed, rang out over the landscape.



A quick driving tour of Kutaisi took in some of the important sights:

The New Parliament – the president decided to moved the parliament from Tbilisi to Kutaisi this year (2012), and this building has been the functioning seat of government for a couple of months now, despite suffering unexplained damage.


The Golden Fleece

Kutaisi was the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Colchis, and it was here that Jason stole King Aeetes' Golden Fleece when he fell in love with the king’s daughter Medea.
Although a myth, the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece has roots in history: sheep fleeces are still used in remote regions today for collecting gold. The fleece is stretched over a wooden frame and submerged in a stream, where it collects gold flakes floating downstream from deposits further up. The fleeces are then be hung in trees to dry before the gold is shaken or combed out.

The statue symbolising the Golden Fleece.

Motsameta Church

Spectacularly sited on a cliff-edge, a long cobbled path leads down from the road, crossing the railway line. It was extremely windy here this morning. In order to enter the church, all women must cover their heads and wear a skirt/dress – fortunately they rent out wrap-around skirts.


According to the legend the monastery was constructed on the place where Muslim aggressors executed David and Konstantin Mkheidze, Georgian princes, who refused to accept Islam. A monastery was built on the site in the 11th c by King Bagrat, and the remains of David and Konstantin (who were later canonised) are displayed in the church. The name means Temple of Martyrs. The church is full of beautiful frescoes, repainted using only natural colours made from ground stones mixed with egg yolks.

The remains of David and Konstantin

Gelati Academy Complex

King David the Builder began constructing the monastery and academy in 1106 as a grand tribute to his victory over the Turks. The academy was one of the first institutions of higher education founded in the Middle Ages, and became a principal cultural centre in Georgia, with over 1000 students at one stage. Although the academy ceased to function in the late Middle Ages—after which it was converted into a refectory—the monastery remains in use. The site is renowned for its collection of 12th to 18th century mosaics and wall paintings with the whole story of the bible depicted on its walls.

The academy



“I'll just order a small lunch” Salome said. 'A small lunch' in Georgia includes leek with walnuts, home made cheese, marinated tomatoes and pickles, tomatoes with walnut sauce, potato fries, pork BBQ, corn bread and Georgian bread, calf ribs with spicy sauce, mushrooms in clay pot, a local vegetable salad (the vegetable is called agala and is a little like spinach) and plum sauce. All washed down with pear lemonade, grape lemonade and cream lemonade. No wonder I have not been hungry at any time during our trip!


Ubisa Cathedral

This 9th cent monastery is dedicated to St George, with its walls completely covered with 14th century murals. The whole life of St George is depicted, as well as general scenes from the Bible. It's a really peaceful and beautiful little church, preserved exactly as it was.


Sweet Bread

On the way back to Tbilisi we stopped to buy some famous 'sweet bread' – a little like a cake or doughnut with a sweet coating. Very nice. The area we passed through is known for this particular bread, and all along the side of the highway, ladies were waving the loafs to passing motorists, hoping they'll stop and buy.


ZP Hotel

It is almost like coming home, although I don't think I could live with the 84 steps up to our room permanently. It's our last night in Tbilisi and we just had a quiet night in the Old Town with a meal and a couple of beers. It's an early start tomorrow.

Night out in Tbilisi

Posted by Grete Howard 12:05 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

Abastumani - Vardzia - Kutaisi

Cave Towns, crazy drivers and amazing fortifications

sunny 26 °C
View In Search of the Golden Fleece - Armenia and Georgia 2012 on Grete Howard's travel map.

At 03:30 David woke me up to show me a perfectly clear sky full of more stars than I've ever seen. Typical.

Abastumani Village

First stop of today: Abastumani village to take some photos. The village is charming (read: rickety) and rustic (read: run down), and very photogenic.



The 12th century cave monastery excavated from the slopes of the Erusheti Mountain is one of the highlights of the trip so far (along with the observatory last night). It is very different from the cave town we visited yesterday, and incredibly impressive. What we see today is a mere shadow of what it was like in its heyday – when everything was covered and invisible to would-be invaders. In its time, there were 13 storeys and over 3000 caves, but an earthquake in the 13th century destroyed nearly all the outer walls, exposing the carefully hidden caves. Over 800 monks lived here back then, now only six remain.


I am everything a visitor to this place should not be – fat, unfit, claustrophobic and with a bad knee. Salome took us through narrow tunnels with steep, narrow, sloping steps, with low ceilings. Oh, and did I mention it was dark? To say I was scared is an understatement – but I am so glad I did it! It really was awesome!



This whole area and valley in particular is dotted with fortifications, some of which have been beautifully restored, other are completely run-down and very little known about them.


Suspension Bridges

Not many vehicular bridges cross the river, but there are plenty of gorgeous suspension foot bridges such as this one.


Once we turned off the road towards Kutaisi, we joined the main highway to Turkey, and it was full of trucks and other vehicles. We saw some really crazy driving and several near-misses; and were very grateful we have such a careful and considerate driver in Temo.

Ceramic Market

Last stop of the day was in the ceramic market at Shrosha – this area is known for its excellent clay and every few hundred yards a market along the side of the road sells pots, jugs and souvenirs made from clay.


Argo Palace

Tonight's hotel is a small guest house with wonderful views across the town – shame about the other extremely noisy guests. I hope they don't continue their drunken singing and clapping all night.


Posted by Grete Howard 11:07 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

Gudauri - Gori - Uplistsikhe - Abastumani

Stalin, Cave Towns and the Moon

all seasons in one day 12 °C
View In Search of the Golden Fleece - Armenia and Georgia 2012 on Grete Howard's travel map.

My deodorant decided it didn't like the altitude, and exploded on me this morning – the roller ball shot off across the room, spraying sticky, but nice smelling goo all over me, the floor, the settee, the bed, the table..... At least this room won't have a BO problem for the foreseeable future.

We had a very disturbed night, one way or another, what with the dog opposite the hotel who went barking mad every time a car passed and the heavy rain on the metal roof outside our window, the huge hailstones, the thunderstorm, the lightning briefly kicking out the electricity several times in the night (thank goodness for the surge protector plug!) and the seven visits to the loo with diarrhoea. That'll teach me drinking mineral water straight out of the ground!

With all the rain we had, it is not really surprising that there was a landslide in the night. The road to the pass (that we took yesterday) was closed, which meant a long line of traffic (mostly Russian cars and trucks) at the police post.

The new president brought in a police reform in 2003 after the Rose Revolution, and decided all police stations should be made of glass for transparency. Shame the same thing didn't happen in the prisons.


On the way to Gori we passed very close to the South Ossetia 'border' and the huge refugee camps for displaced Georgians after the August War in 2008. EUMM vehicles can still be seen patrolling the area to monitor the situation.

Joseph Stalin Museum

The museum was built during the Soviet era, and the local guide was quick to point out that there were no displays covering the 'Dark Times' of Georgian history, although the cultural minister is in the process of adding further exhibits to show a more balanced picture to counteract the propaganda and falsification of historical events. The museum is dedicated to the life of Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union, who was born in Gori. The museum is a fascinating time capsule of Soviet propaganda in similar style to other communist idol-worship museums we've seen (think Kim Jung il).


The exhibits are divided into six halls in roughly chronological order, and contain many items owned by Stalin, including some of his office furniture, his personal effects and gifts made to him over the years. There is also much illustration by way of documentation, photographs, paintings and newspaper articles. The display concludes with one of twelve copies of the death mask of Stalin taken shortly after his death. The mask is much smaller than natural size, as the size diminished a little with each copy.


In the grounds is a small wooden hut, in which Stalin was born in 1878 and spent his first four years. Stalin's family only occupied one half of the small house, with his father,a local shoemaker, having a workshop in the basement.


To one side of the museum is Stalin's personal railway carriage. The green Pullman carriage, which is armour plated and weighs 83 tons, was used by Stalin from 1941 onwards, including his attendances at the Yalta Conference and the Tehran Conference. It was sent to the museum on being recovered from the railway yards at Rostov-on-Don in 1985. From the outside it is very inconspicuous and it was considered much safer for Stalin to travel this way, almost incognito, than to fly. Inside it is really quite comfortable, although not luxurious.


Uplistsikhe Cave Town

The name literally means "the lord's fortress", this ancient rock-hewn town
contains various structures dating from the 2nd millennia BC and is notable for the unique combination of various styles of rock-cut cultures from Anatolia and Iran, as well as the co-existence of pagan and Christian architecture. Mostly bare inside, you can still make out the theatre, pagan temple, private houses with gardens etc.


Scrambling up over smooth rocks dotted with modern staircases, we were really grateful the rain had stopped, although it was still very, very windy.



Another amazing lunch in Gori, where we were able to watch the local stone baked bread being made in huge kilns – fires are lit in clay pots, and when the charcoal is just glowing at the bottom and the sides of the pot are very hot, bread dough is stuck on the inside walls, a lid put on and after 15-20 minutes, delicious fresh bread is brought out.


Borjomi Park

On the way to Abastumani we stopped in Borjomi Park, part of the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park for a walk. The area has long been known for its curative waters, and is full of beautiful old buildings which once housed sanatoria. Now you can buy empty flagons outside for filling with the healthy water, although there is a huge factory producing 561,000 bottles of the stuff annually. The volcanic water comes from 1.5 kilometres under ground, and on its way up passes through soil enriched with many minerals.


Still having the runs, I have spent the day testing out the various toilets of the area, and had a very urgent mission to see the inside of the facilities in the park. I could hear the lady door attendant shouting something as I rushed in, but I was in no state to stop and find out what she wanted. Just as I was crouched over the hole in the ground and let rip, I heard the word “madame” and saw a hand appear under the door with toilet paper. Perfect timing!

Political Rally

We'd seen the 41 signs on hillsides, houses and cars, but never understood what it was. 41 is one of the political parties – there is a general election on October 1st – and today there was a major rally. Dozens of cars, from party 41 as well as 5, and they were driving two abreast on the dual carriageway, lights flashing, horns blaring and huge flags displayed. Temo (our excellent driver) took the opposite side of the carriageway to get around the traffic jam – fortunately there is very little traffic about.



The road to the observatory and 'hotel' where we are staying was a spectacular ascent on a recently resurfaced road with amazing hairpin bends. The lodgings are basic but perfectly adequate, and the fact that we are staying in a working observatory more than makes up for any shortcomings.

Abastumani Observatory

Abastumani Observatory was founded in 1932 on Mount Kanobili, near the spa resort of the same name The altitude of Mt.Kanobili is 1650 to 1700 m. above sea level and the site was selected due to the high transparency of ambient air and clear night sky over 250 days a year. Tonight was not one of those 250, but we went along to the observatory anyway. The telescope is enormous, a 40cm refractor-scope. Nice Mr Scientist showed us how the roof split open – to reveal a sky full of clouds. The floor moves up and down and the telescope swivels. We all looked up at the sky with the naked eye, wishing the clouds to move away. Suddenly Salomeh spotted a star, but by the time Mr Scientist pointed the scope at it, the clouds had covered it. This repeated itself several times until the moon decided to check out what was going on, and peeped out from behind the cloud. WOW WOW WOW Seeing the moon through such a powerful telescope was a breathtaking experience, and a new one for us. Through one of the eye pieces you could see the whole moon (or rather the half a moon that was visible), and through the main scope you could make out individual craters. WOW WOW WOW Thank you nice Mr Scientist.


There is also a museum on site, highlighting the construction and history of the observatory, which we took a look at before walking through the national park back to the hotel. A barking red fox upset the cows as well as the local dogs who set off it hot pursuit. I hope this doesn't go on all night...

Meteorite in the museum

Posted by Grete Howard 09:38 Archived in Georgia Comments (1)


Celebrating St Mary and cleansing away our sins - or at least dirt...

sunny 32 °C
View In Search of the Golden Fleece - Armenia and Georgia 2012 on Grete Howard's travel map.

It always takes a day or three to develop a rapport with your guide and driver; and just as I was feeling comfortable with Jenna and Artijom, we changed over. In the car from the border, Salomeh was telling us about the 16 ex-USSR states and I corrected her to 15. She insisted it was 16 until I listed the 15 and asked her to name the 16th. Which of course she couldn't so she suggested she would google it when she got home. Maybe not a good start...


Legend has it that at the beginning of time when God was giving out land to the nations of the world the Georgians were too busy drinking to attend. Arriving late, God was angry and asked why they had dishonoured him so; there was now no land left to give them. But the Georgians replied that far from dishonouring God they were late because they were drinking to His health and this took some time. God was pleased by their answer and so gave them the tiny bit of land he had been keeping for himself.


According to Georgian legends, it was founded in the 5th century by King Vakhtang Gorgasali who, while hunting, shot a pheasant which fell into a warm spring and was healed. The king was inspired to found a city on the site, and the name of the city derives from the Georgian word tbili meaning "warm". Although the city has been destroyed and rebuilt some 29 times, the layout of the Old Town is largely intact with narrow alleys and big crooked houses built around courtyards. It appears that the entire town is “under restoration”, just like “it's closed” was the refrain for Armenia. I think in five years' time this will be the new 'in' place to travel for a weekend. It certainly ought to be.

The king himself

Metechi Church

Today is the anniversary of the birth of St Mary, and is considered a very special religious holiday, so Metechi (dedicated to St Mary) church was full to bursting with parishioners. 80% of Georgians are practising Orthodox Christians. The church was built between 1278 and 1284. It is a somewhat unusual example of domed Georgian Orthodox church which in the later part of Soviet period was used as a theatre.


Sulphur Bath Houses

The bath district is called Abanotubani and a long time ago the people not only washed themselves there but also socialised sometimes until dawn; and the city matchmakers arranged presentation of marriageable girls on special days. In the baths they threw parties, made deals. The baths consist of separate booths with individual small pools filled with hydro-sulfuric water. Just sit in such water - and all diseases will be gone. And after the special massage you will feel like you are born again. So Salomeh promises.



Built in 1811, this is the only remaining mosque in the city still functioning. Here, sunni and shiite Muslims pray together. About 400 Muslims still live in Tbilisi.


Narik Ala Fortress

Not just the first fortress in Tbilisi, but also one of the oldest buildings in town, with its origins dating back to the 4th century BC. In its heyday, the defence walls were 1 kilometre long with 70 watch towers. Somewhat more modest these days, the fortress is certainly still very formidable.


St Nicholas Church

The church of St Nicholas is only about five years old, and the inside is covered in beautiful frescoes. The previous church on this spot was used as a gunpowder store during Soviet times, but an explosion and subsequent fire completely demolished the church. The current church is one of the most important churches in all of Georgia.


Armenian Church

The 13th century church looks nothing like any of the churches we saw in Armenia – it is very much more decorated inside and none of the cross beams holdings the domes that we became so used to seeing.



Georgians have a good friendship with the Jews, up until 1991 there were 21,000 Jews in the country. Now only 3000 remain.


The walking tour continued through the old town, with Salomeh enthusiastically explaining to us about all the sights we passed, such as the old tram car, the statue of a popular Georgian actress and the 16th century caravanserai.


Sioni Cathedral

Bears the name of Mount Zion at Jerusalem, which was the place St Mary slept forever. It was initially built in the 6th-7th centuries. Since then, it has been destroyed by foreign invaders and reconstructed several times. Inside you can find a huge chair for the caotholicos patriarch to sit on, as well as graves of several previous caotholicos. Lots of devotees and priests milling around, one who was on his mobile phone – did he have a hotline to God?


The driver was meant to pick us up and take us to the restaurant for lunch, but for various reasons we ended up walking there instead. I was surprised at how many beggars we have seen in the city.


Lunch was very good – their traditional cheese pie (khachapuri) and the khinkali (a very tasty meat dumpling). The driver showed us how to eat the dumplings like a Georgian - with your hands, biting off one bit then sucking the juice out, and leaving the knot at the top.


State Museum of Fine Arts

The Museum houses more than 38 900 items, fortunately we only visited three sections: the treasury with ancient gold items including jewellery, the occupations museum and a new exhibit of oriental art in Georgia. This is one of the largest museums in the country, and very modern, even though it was of course under renovation. I was really amazed at the intricacy of the 2500 year old jewellery more than anything.


Bath and massage

Salomeh arranged a private room for us in the sulphur baths this evening – neither of us really knew what to expect, and we were both a little apprehensive. It was a new experience for both of us. The large tub was filled with water that was way too hot for us to enter, I expect it was around 45C or so. I managed half a leg. We'd also ordered a massage, which was in essence a good scrub, all over with plenty of lathering. Any ideas I had about preserving my modesty went out of the window. Women get a female masseuse, men a male. David's butcher, I mean masseur, turned the heat of the water down to around 40-41C which made it bearable to get in. A cold shower then chill out and get get dressed in the very posh anti-room, complete with comfortable arm chairs and A/C. I have never felt so clean in all my life.


Posted by Grete Howard 10:16 Archived in Georgia Comments (1)

Tbilisi by Night

fabulous lights, overzealous security guards and surly waiting staff

sunny 29 °C
View In Search of the Golden Fleece - Armenia and Georgia 2012 on Grete Howard's travel map.

As daylight was fading and the artificial lights came on, the view from the balcony made us think that it was worth taking a tripod and heading for town. And boy was it worth it! I love, love, love Tbilisi by night. It's such a vibrant city, so much creative use of lights on bridges, buildings and statues. Apart from almost being run over by a police car and being questioned on the bridge by a security guard as I was setting my tripod up, the evening was uneventful.


Salomeh recommended a restaurant with a couple of nice terraces overlooking one of the squares, so we headed for that. There appeared not to be any free tables on the terrace by the entrance, so we wandered inside and stood around in the lobby looking lost, with at least seven waiters rushing past, totally ignoring us. Eventually we asked one of the waitresses if there were any tables upstairs outside, and she just screwed her face up, shrugged her shoulders and pointed upwards with one finger. “Check for yourself”. That's when we decided to take our custom elsewhere. We found a nice little place with upmarket seating and cute waiters. The food was good, as was the service, and they had free wifi. Result!


Posted by Grete Howard 22:33 Archived in Georgia Comments (2)

Drozaget - Sanahin - Haghpat - Tbilisi

It's that ABC feeling.... (another bloody church!)

semi-overcast 29 °C
View In Search of the Golden Fleece - Armenia and Georgia 2012 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Appropriately, Artijom was playing the song “Georgia on my mind” when we got in the car this morning.
The road followed the river down through the stunning Debet gorge, clinging to the hillside with a sheer drop one side. I have re-named Artijom our 'one armed bandit' because he just uses one hand when driving, usually the left hand at two o'clock on the steering wheel, and my heart misses a beat every time he lets go of the steering wheel to move his hand across as we are hurtling towards a hairpin bend at 80 km/hr.


Sanahin Monastery

The 10th century structure was probably covered with frescoes inside at one point, though none remain now.
Several grave stones of important noblemen, clergymen and priests can be found in the floor of the church, it was believed that – unlike many places were stepping on top of graves is considered a sacrilege - the more people stepped on their graves, the more their sins will be forgiven.



ABC. “Another bloody church”. I'm sorry, but the various styles of medieval religious architecture is becoming a little lost on me, and the names of the saints, sinners (or maybe not after we stepped on their graves), kings, priests and architects are dancing around in my brain to different tunes. By the time we visited the last vestibule, it was just another huge, grey stone building..... I'm sorry Jenna.....


Construction of the main church of the large fortified monastic complex, dedicated to the Holy Cross was completed in 991 and there is a fresco here, although that is of a much later origin (13th century).


Sanahin and Haghpat were important centres of learning, housing some 500 monks, and bear eloquent testimony to the highest achievement of Armenian architecture. They are both UNESCO Heritage sites and are being lovingly restored as we speak.



Another enjoyable BBQ lunch in a local restaurant (this area is known for its excellent grilled meats), followed by some heavy debates covering areas such as the history of the Jews, the place of the British Royal family in modern society, American politics, the Knights Templar and the afterlife.


An hour's drive took us to the border with Georgia, where it was time to say goodbye to Jenna and Artijom and take the long, lonely walk across the bridge to the Georgian side. Funnily enough the Armenian side was quite run down, dirty and tatty, whereas the Georgian side was modern, clean and very welcoming.

A new driver, a new guide and a new car. All three are very different: Jenna was 55 going on 75, whereas Salomeh is 24, very petite and pretty; and the driver, whose name I am still not quite sure of, is somewhat rotund and homely, unlike Artijom with his lean physique and cute looks. David's turn for the eye candy.

It seems that one-handed driving and last minute swerving is the driving style around all these parts, but at least this car is very much more modern and comfortable. It even has airconditioning.

The approach to Tbilisi consisted of narrow country lanes with more cows than cars for the first few miles; then wide, fast avenues with huge, grey Soviet housing blocks either side.

Our hotel, the ZP (named after the initials of the local sports star owner) is on a hill within the old city, in the middle of a large area of reconstruction work. We have a large balcony overlooking the old town – it would be awesome but for the dust from the building works and 29C we are currently having.


Posted by Grete Howard 07:29 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

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