Tbilisi Owns My Heart

I am in love with Georgia and already hoping to return one day. I have been here a little more than a week, yet I feel as if I have only scratched the surface of this fascinating and absolutely stunning country.

Before leaving for this trip to the Caucasus region, the idea of Georgia and Tbilisi somehow scared me a tiny bit and I’d read a few horror stories of people who were robbed. I was so terrified that I’d loose all my pictures if someone stole my camera that I decided to bring along my pocket version rather than my larger SLR.

 

Selling baloons in Tbilisi
Selling baloons in Tbilisi

After arriving in Tbilisi I am so very frustrated that I didn’t bring the best of the best of cameras in order to capture this amazing capital. My trips around Georgia have only cemented this irritation with myself. Not only do I find myself completely at ease here with friendly and open-hearted people. I also think this might just be the most beautiful country I have ever visited. Everything from the lush green mountains of the Southern Caucasus to the romantic Orthodox churches. Add to this a very charming capital which brings to mind the atmosphere of a Southern French town. I absolutely adore Tbilisi.

I am lodging in a homestay which seems the only way to do it in Tbilisi. She has a massive flat where she rents out countless beds to hapless backpackers who have had the odd idea of exploring Georgia. This is definitely not a touristy country.

 

Old balconies in Tbilisi
Old balconies in Tbilisi

Most of my fellow backpackers however agree with me that Georgia is the most beautiful country they have ever seen. Only those who have been to Syria argue that Georgia only manages second place. But I guess I’ll have to see Syria in order to dispute that.

While in Georgia, I have taken three trips outside of Tbilisi. First a day trip to Mtskheta, then a few days in Kazbegi and finally a day trip to the monastery complex David Gareja. But in between I’ve had the fortune to wonder the streets of Tbilisi absorbing the atmosphere and meeting the charming Georgian culture.

 

Kiosk in the wall
Kiosk in the wall

I never really figured out Tbilisi since everything was in Georgian script, and though I attempted to reach different neighbourhoods each day I simply walked though the streets absorbing both the old and the new. Old wooden and ornamented houses with old Ladas in front. New modern buildings and modern sculptures.

 

Green Lada in the shade
Green Lada in the shade

My favourite part was reaching Sololaki Hill with the massive statue Kartlis Deda. As The Statue of Liberty or the Jesus statue keeping watch over Rio de Janeiro, Kartlis Deda stands 20 metres tall keeping watch over Tbilisi. Kartlis Deda is Mother Georgia and is a symbol of the Georgian people. She has a goblet of wine in one hand representing the Georgian hospitality and a sword in the other telling the world that she will fight if need be.

 

Kartlis Deda
Kartlis Deda

I am in love with Georgia and already hoping to return one day. I have been here a little more than a week, yet I feel as if I have only scratched the surface of this fascinating and absolutely stunning country.

Zofka

Rock Sliding in David Gareja

After some amazing days in both Kazbegi and in Tbilisi, I went with a few other backpackers on a day trip to the Kakheti region in the eastern part of Georgia. We wanted to visit the famous David Gareja Monastery, one of Georgia’s religious and cultural institutions.

The monastery was built back in the 6th century by St. David Garejeli, who was one of the thirteen Assyrian monks, who according to Georgian Christian tradition were a group of monks from Mesopotamia who arrived in Georgia in the 6th century to strengthen the integration of Christianity. Many early Christian churches and monasteries are believed to have been founded by these monks. Amongst these the David Gareja Monastery.

 

The gate to David Gareja Monastery Complex
The gate to David Gareja Monastery Complex

It is truly fascinating for several reasons. Far out in the semi-desert between Georgia and Azerbaijan, the monastery seems to grow out of the rock, which in fact does. It is a massive complex with large parts hollowed out of the rock as caves, which are being used as cells, churches, chapels, refectories and living quarters hollowed.

 

David Gareja main building
David Gareja main building

It is really beautiful and after a short introduction of the complex by an in-house priest we were given free range to discover the place. Though I don’t think they had in mind that we would be crashing in on their living quarters. However, along with another girl I got lost somewhere midway attempting to reach the top of some rocks and before we knew it we were standing in front of a long line of caves. Happening upon one of them we found a Georgian priest reading at a desk before another came hurrying towards us indicating that we were not allowed here.

 

Eastern Georgia
Eastern Georgia
Sliding down the rock

The problem, however, was that since we had no idea how we got this far, we had no idea of how to get back. We ended up deciding on the shortest distance to the plateau where we entered, which meant that we zigzagged and nearly slid down the gravel covered mountain side, getting caught in the tons of dessert bushes. I can easily say that we saw parts of the David Gareja Monestary that tourists are not usually privy to.

 

Looking to the top in David Gareja
Looking to the top in David Gareja

Perhaps we even managed to cross over to Azerbaijan. The Monastery Complex is the cause of a territorial dispute between Georgia and Azerbaijan because it is divided by the border and parts of the ground are on Azeri soil. Georgia has offered other territories in return for the Azeri part of the complex, but Azerbaijan has refused claiming that no other border area has the same strategic position. And I go: What???

Furthermore, some historians from Azerbaijan have begun arguing that the place is in fact the very birth of the predecessor state to Azerbaijan, why it is culturally significant to the country. The very fact that there are no historic proof of this whatsoever makes me wonder if the word historian is perhaps used to widely these days.

 

Standing at the top of David Gareja
Standing at the top of David Gareja

David Gareja should be Georgian and Azerbaijan should concur simply because it is the right thing to do. Sometimes an act of kindness is worth much more even in international relations than anything else. And considering their ongoing dispute with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh they might consider let good neighbourly relations thrive with Georgia. But that is just my simple and naive opinion.

Zofka

Kazbegi – In the Heart of the Caucasus Mountains

I sit at Tsminda Sameba, the church that represents Georgia in every tourist brochure. Mt Kazbeg is on the West site of the church and the village at the East, – right under my feet. 14 kilometers to the north lies Russia. I am in the heart of the Caucasus Mountains – on the border between Europe and Asia.

The old man tries to speak to me in Russian – I try to respond. My minimal Slovene glossary come in handy now. He asks me where I am from. I answer Daniya. He says something about Daniya and gori (mountain). I laugh and make the motion of flat. He gives up and leaves me to my own thoughts. I sit quietly and rest while looking down upon the village of Kazbegi. I sit at Tsminda Sameba, the church that represents Georgia in every tourist brochure. Mt Kazbeg is on the West site of the church and the village at the East, – right under my feet. 14 kilometres to the north lies Russia. I am in the heart of the Caucasus Mountains. On the border between Europe and Asia.

The church tower of Tsminda Sameba
The church tower of Tsminda Sameba
The drive to Kazbegi

As I arrived to Didube bus station the day before, a Georgian soldier looked curiously at me and asked in Russian if I was going to Kazbegi alone. I told him da. From then on he took it upon himself to act as my protector in much the same way as he was for his own children. He gave me candy, he explained the time of departure, he gave me more candy. At 11 o’clock, just as the soldier had said the marshrutka left Didube station heading for Kazbegi.

Except from a young Latvian couple I found myself the only tourist in a minibus cramped with Georgians. Women with children, middle-aged men and a very old woman who complained a lot. All of them had bags and sacks full of tomatoes, onions and corn, and even a large old television was squeezed in to the back seat. How there came to be room for all of us, I still don’t know.

View of the Caucasus
View of the Caucasus

I had hoped to sleep on the way, but quickly discovered that the trip itself was an unforgettable experience. The Georgian Military Highway runs through mountains and valleys and passes the beautiful setting of Ananuri out to the Zhinvali Reservoir, an extraordinarily beautiful greyish-blue lake. If I could I would have stopped there for an hour or two or even a day, relaxing at the side of the lake. But the marshrutka went on, further into the depths of the Caucasus mountains. After stopping in many of the small villages on the way, leaving behind people with onions, tomatoes and even the television, we finally arrived in Kazbegi.

The mountains here are as a wall surrounding the eastern side, standing majestically over the village. To the west is Mount Kazbek with its 5047m peak and in the streets stand a lonely cow, dashing its tail lazily in an attempt to fight off the flies.

Day 1: Tsminda Sameba

I live at Nasi’s place, mostly sitting on the veranda enjoying the view. She is a wonderful person who cooks and takes prodigiously good care of the many people who come here to stay a night or two. It therefore often happens that many decide to hang on and stay for a week or more. I would love to do that too, but unfortunately my time is limited and I still hope to get a glimpse of the summer back home.

Overlooking Tsminda Sameba
Overlooking Tsminda Sameba

This morning, bright and early at 7.30 while the morning sky was still clear and as the first light of sun hit the walls of the valley I started on a hiking trip to the famously situated church Tsminda Sameba. I was so fortunate as to be accompanied by a Polish guy who knew the way well. He had come to Kazbegi to climb the peak of Mount Kazbek but had had to give up because of the altitude. Now he had decided to join the rest of the group as they were descending, helping them with their bags and gear.

As we walked upwards the weather got hot and the road seemed to be steeper. Half way up and while taking pictures of Mount Kazbeg from afar, a horseman came along on the path behind us. It happened to be Robert, the hired help for the mountain climbers. He was on his way with two extra horses in order to meet the climbers and help them carry their backpacks for the last part of their descending Mt Kazbek. After a bit of greetings in Russian between the Polish mountain climber and the Georgian horseman, I was placed on one of the horses and we began the last part of our trip towards the church on horseback.

Me, myself and horses

I am not a rider and it has been 10 years since I was last time mounted on the back of a horse. To be quite frank it always comes as a shock to me that horses are so big and in particular that there is such a long way down. While holding the tongue straight in my mouth (as we say where I come from) I tried to focus on getting the horse to do just a bit of what I wanted it to do. It was a golden and rather social horse and far from comparable to any of the horses from the riding school I had once attended when I was still in my pre-teens. While they had all been old and grey and barely moving, this one was extremely lively, pretty annoyed with its terrified rider and constantly turning around. When we lacked behind which most often occurred due to my terrible riding skills the horse started to gallop so it could once again have its head closely linked to the bottom of the horse ahead. I’ve never galloped before in my life and could do nothing but hold on tightly and pray that the horse knew what it was doing, because the scenery as well was quite different from that of an indoor riding school.

on a horse08
on a horse09
on a horse10
on a horse0
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on a horse02
on a horse03
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on a horse06

While I was holding on tightly to the saddle of the golden horse, we came within view of Tsminda Sameba. The sky was still blue and Mount Kazbek was majestically rising to our right, while the view to our left was that of the valley and the mountain wall behind it. As Robert had no problems with my lack of controlling the golden horse, we continued further than the church, moving towards the glacier and Mt Kazbek, riding on a small pass on the side of the mountain.

Horses at Tsminda Sameba
Horses at Tsminda Sameba

After a while and as I could feel that our party of three was slowing down because of me, I chose to get off and thank Robert for the “lift”. Then I slowly went back down, enjoying the view of a single church on a mountain top with snow covered mountains as the backdrop. Now I sit at the church next to the old Georgian man who is spying on the village of Kazbegi down below with a pair of binoculars. I suppose it is time for me to descend to Nasi’s for a good Georgian lunch.

View from Tsminda Sameba
View from Tsminda Sameba

Day two: The Russian border

Nasi’s is peaceful and the people who have come all the way to this outpost are of such different yet fascinating nature. While the Polish guy was reunited with his group, I spent the following day walking alongside a young American guy all the way to the border.

We were greeted at the beginning with a stunning view of Mount Kazbek, before our journey took us through what seemed a canyon or valley. Following the road for ages, I was stunned by the sheer beauty of this place. I can honestly admit that I have never seen anything like it.

Road to the Russian border
Road to the Russian border

We hitched a hike for the last part of the journey and managed to reach the Georgian side of the border where a lonely Georgian soldier stood. Such a strange feeling to know that on the other side only a few kilometres north lay Mother Russia. Big and looming. I could almost feel the pressure from that old superpower and the entire place felt so very dark and dramatic.

While the soldier was not pleased with the idea of appearing in our pictures, he was willing to step aside so we could take pictures in front of the border post. Looking at these pictures, I cannot help seeing myself as some silly tourist standing there laughing at a place so ominous.

At the border to Russia
At the border to Russia

We were fortunately also able to catch a ride back to Kazbegi, or my feet would have given up.

Day Three: Back to Tbilisi

I was planning to take the marshrutka back to Tbilisi when a German couple who’d hired a driver to return offered me the extra seat. Happy for the chance to stop on the way and see some more of the Georgian Military Highway I gratefully accepted.

On our way back we stopped at several beautiful stops such as an old ruin which the local sheep had taken a liking to thanks to the shade it offered. We also stopped at Jvari pass where the minerals in the water which springs from the earth colours the rock red. Thus, in the middle of the lush green of the Caucasus mountains are splotches of an intense red.

Ironised earth at Jvari pass
Ironised earth at Jvari pass

Finally we made it to Ananuri, which I’d fancied seeing since driving by on the way to Kazbegi. Ananuri is an old castle complex which lies in all its glory at the Aragvi River and out to the Zhinvali Reservoir. It used to be the seat of the Dukes of Aragvi who ruled the area from the 13th century onwards. The castle was built in the 17th century.

Ananuri
Ananuri

However, it was immensely hot and terrible to walk around sightseeing. I was wet with sweat when we finally got into the car. Not that the car offered any reprieve from the baking sun, since there was no air-con available. In fact it was quite the metal bucket we were driving around in. For most of the journey one of us had to hold the door of the right side passenger seat closed with our hands, because otherwise it would open up.

Fortunately, the car made it back to Tbilisi in one piece and I returned to my former lodgings for a well deserved rest.

Zofka

A Religious Journey of Mtskheta

Only 20 kilometres from Tbilisi lies Mtskheta, which is unpronounceable and one of the eldest cities of Georgia. It is also the birthplace of the Georgian Orthodox Christianity and therefore strongly connected to the Georgian identity.

Georgia was beat by Armenia by only a mere 36 years, when Christianity was declared the state religion of Kartli – an early Georgian kingdom – in 337. As the second country in the world to adopt Christianity, Georgia is not only immensely proud, but also has a long tradition of Orthodox Christianity.

The Georgian Orthodox Church is an autocephalous church of the Byzantine rite Eastern Churches, meaning that it is self-governing and in full communion with the rest of Eastern Orthodoxy. But the church has also suffered from the often tension filled relationship to Russia. When Russia in 1811 occupied Georgia, the church was forced into the Russian Orthodox Church.

With the Georgian regaining of independence in 1918, the church once again proclaimed itself an autocephalous – meaning that it broke free of Russia – something the Russian Orthodox Church only recognised in 1943 after orders by none other than Josef Stalin.

 

Churchyard at Samtavro Church
Churchyard at Samtavro Church

However with the 1921 Red Army invasion in Georgia, the church suffered decades of pressure from the Communist government and Soviet policy. It wasn’t until the break-up of the Soviet Union that the Georgian Orthodox Church truly regained its position as the leading national church of Georgia. This post-Soviet period has however seen a strong revival of the church which seems intricately entwined with the Georgian national identity.

As the birthplace of Georgian Christianity Mtskheta is revered amongst Georgians and definitely worth a visit.

Thus, together with Eva and her boyfriend who planned to stop over in Mtskheta on their way to the Georgian coast, I went on a day trip to explore some of the central churches of Georgian Orthodoxy.

 

Dressed properly at Samtavro Church
Dressed properly at Samtavro Church
Samtavro Church

We began the day at the stunning Samtavro Church, which is the burial place of King Mirian III of Kartli and Queen Nana. The reason that this is a noteworthy piece of information is because they introduced Christianity to the later Georgia in 337.

It is a gorgeous building with lots of old women milling around. As we wanted to enter the church Eva and I were requested to wear something to cover our hair making us look like cleaning ladies. In Eastern Orthodoxy it is a rule for women to cover their head when praying be it in church or at home. Fortunately, Georgian churches keep a basket of head coverings for forgetful women or Western tourists to borrow while entering. The fact that neither Eva nor I intended to pray in this house of God was not relevant.

 

Samtavro Church
Samtavro Church
Jvari Monastery

After relieving ourselves of the head coverings we had a driver take us up the hills to the magnificent Jvari Monastery which lies on the top of a hill overlooking where the rivers Mtkvari and Aragvi meet. The dramatic position of the monastery overlooking the river junction was even on this cloudy day breathtakingly beautiful.

Our driver was kind enough to first stop a little distance from the monastery for us to see just how well it looked from the distance. I can easily imagine how pilgrims must have felt nearing to this place of worship.

 

Jvari Monastery
Jvari Monastery

Before the christening of Kartli, the place was a pagan temple and legend tells that it was St. Nino who in the 4th century erected a wooden cross at the temple. The cross created miracles, curing disease and soon the place became a spot for pilgrimage. Around 545 a small church was built on the spot, but not a sixty years later, a larger church was built. It is this church which stands today looking over Mtskheta.

I can’t really comprehend that it is so old. That is almost three hundred years before the Danes carved some runes in a rock declaring Denmark Christian.

While the monastery alongside other iconic religious buildings in Mtskheta came on the UNESCO World Heritage List and was renovated after the end of the Soviet regime, it looks in disarray. It doesn’t help that while walking through the buildings you’ll find a sheep taking a nap in one of the niches.

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

We ended at the largest and most famous church in Mtskheta. The beautiful Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. One of the main reasons for the importance and fame of the cathedral is that it is the burial site Christ’s mantle at least according to the tradition of the Georgian Orthodox Church. It is told that a Georgian Jew named Elioz was present at the crucifixion of Christ, and bought the the mantle from a Roman soldier.

 

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral
Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

In my opinion this is probably, if one is to choose between the countless legends of the mantle, the most likely. Unlike other versions this connects all the way back to the crucifixion. However, the story gets a bit unbelievable after Elioz return to Mtskheta. Here it seems his sister Sidonia died from the overwhelming emotions caused by this sacred mantle. Furthermore, they could not retrieve it from her cold dead hands and she had to be buried with the mantle. From the spot she was buried grew a cedar tree.

It was on this spot that St. Nino chose to built the first church in the 4th century and the original Svetitskhoveli Cathedral with the sacred mantle of Christ is also the place from where Christianity began in Georgia.

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral as it stands today was built in 1029, which in itself is impressive. It is by all means the perfect ending to this day of church hopping.

Zofka