Archives for category: Postcards

I went to Tao-Klarjeti a few weeks ago. If you chose to take a break and look for that on a map, you may be very confused at this point. Tao-Klarjeti isn’t the name of anywhere anymore. It was the region where the Bagrationi dynasty of Georgian monarchs were from, and now it’s part of Turkey; the places we visited were mostly in Artvin province. It’s a pretty popular destination for Georgians to go on tours, but not somewhere many Americans visit, so when a friend asked if I wanted to join, I said “Why not?”. We went on an organized, but not guided, tour. We had two mini vans full of people, including a professional driver for each, and the organizer. The drivers were very good and did not suffer from lead foot or road rage, and the organizer had a route worked out and pre-arranged cheap hotels. We paid 270 GEL/person for a 3-day trip, which included everything except food–we didn’t stop at restaurants or stores (though one evening we went to a teahouse and bought some olives and baklava); we brought pretty much everything with us from Tbilisi, and ate in the car en route.

We left Tbilisi early in the morning and made for the Vale-Türkgözü border crossing. There was a long line of trucks, but very few passenger cars, so they let us skip ahead and we crossed quite quickly. It was interesting to see the change as we crossed the border. The geography in the region was the same on the Georgian and Turkish sides, but nonetheless it was obvious that we were in a different country–the cemeteries were different, the houses were a different style, and there were tractors and mechanized agriculture all around us. As we drove further into Turkey we got into higher and higher mountains. There was still quite a bit of snow, and we were even caught in a blizzard in the mountains between Ardahan and Savsat. There was some sort of nature reserve or natural park in the mountains, and it reminded me of the American West–pine forests, rugged mountains, and well-maintained picnic areas. As we drove through a village on the Savsat side, one whole village was outside (despite the poor weather) having some sort of festival.

Late in the afternoon, we made our first stop: Tbeti Monastery, the first of many old, abandoned Georgian churches in various states of ruin. Apparently this church survived fairly well for a long time, but was “exploded” in the mid-20th century…sounds like there’s a story there, but I didn’t get any more information than that. One of the villagers speaks some Georgian and runs a little souvenir shop (and paid toilet) next to the site. Next, we stopped at Savsat Kalesi, the former citadel of the town of Savsat (in Georgian, შავშეთი/Shavsheti) which was kind of a big deal back in the Georgian era. There are archeological excavations ongoing sponsored by the Turkish government. The fortress has some typically Georgian features–there’s a tone (traditional Georgian bread kiln) and kvevri (Georgian amphorae), and a “pharmacy” very similar to the one at Vardzia. Then we took a break from historical sites and clambered around “Hell’s Canyon” (Cehennem Deresi Kanyonu). It was a nice enough canyon, I suppose, but as I’ve spent a lot of time in the American West, a canyon in and of itself is nothing so impressive. This was the place where it became abundantly clear that our organizer’s footwear recommendations were way off the mark. She had recommended galoshes or rain boots, which I don’t have, so I wore what was closest: snow boots. Even though my snow boots are made by an outdoors/hiking brand, they are absolute clodhoppers, and I had real difficulty maneuvering through the canyon and leaping from stone to stone. I also picked up a good few kilos of mud in the treads, making me kind of miserable. But I made it through. Our next stop was the fortress Artanuji / Gevhernik. We approached from behind, and it was perched atop a sheer rock face. When my friend told me we were climbing up there, I joked about not having brought any rock climbing gear. We walked around to the other side, and though there was a path (of a sort) it was still tough climbing in the aforementioned clodhoppers. It was worth the climb, as the fortress was filled with wildflowers, and was really, really beautiful.


Artanuji Fortress

After one more stop at Dolishane Church, which is supposed to have lovely frescoes, but I couldn’t tell you as it was pitch black by the time we got there, we returned to the town of Savsat and stayed in a pension run by a guy called Jemal, who is the widower of a Georgian woman and loves all things Georgia. The place was basic, but clean (until we tramped mud through), and the beds were comfy and showers were warm.

The next day, I ignored any further fashion advice and switched to my trail runners, so I had no further climbing issues. First, we drove up a narrow, windy, frightening/beautiful mountain road to Porta monastery.  We saved some time getting there by scrambling up a stream bed rather than following the path. This was once a massive complex; now much of it is buried, but bits are still accessible. The ground we stood on was once one of the upper roofs. Apparently a large piece of the dome (which is still above ground) had fallen just a few days before our visit, so I was rather wary of exploring very much. It was also interesting that the village is still inhabited, and though it’s tiny and remote, electric lines do reach up there.


You can understand why bits of Porta are falling down, right?

We also visited the village spring to refill our water bottles with cool fresh water. The Georgians said it had some special health/religious properties, but I was mostly happy to get a cool drink.

Our next stop was Artvin Castle, which is now part of a Turkish military base (so no photos). At first they told us we couldn’t enter, but then a nice young soldier who spoke very good English came to escort us. On the road to our next destination, there was a distinct change in the landscape. The area around Savsat was one of the lushest, greenest places I’ve visited (we drove past a hotel called Green Valley: they were not lying), and as we went further on, the landscape become much more arid (and brown). We visited many churches this afternoon: Ishan Monastery, which was closed for restoration–the Georgian government has protested the way the Turks were renovating, allegedly frescoes were destroyed, but they seem to be back at work; Haho/Hahuli which is now used as a mosque; there are supposed to be good frescoes, but it was locked so we couldn’t see; and the Oshki Monastery, which was relatively intact except for the lack of roof, and also had an academy. Our last stop of the evening was  Tortum Waterfall, the highest in Turkey, which had rather nice tourism infrastructure and cafes. We were due to spend the night in the town of Yusufeli, so we wandered around a bit, bought some edible souvenirs, and met and chatted with a Georgian Turk in a teahouse. We then proceeded on to our accommodation at Hotel Agara, which was lovely, and a sakalmakhe (საკალმახე, trout restaurant) as well as a hotel. This day was particularly poignant as much of the area surrounding these places, apparently including the town of Yusufeli, will soon be flooded with the completion of planned dam projects. I’m not sure about the status of the historical sites themselves, though the ones on mountaintops are likely to be fine.

On the third and final day of our trip, we began at the Tekkale/Otkhta Monastery (the “Monastery of Four”), then visited Esbek, which was interesting as it was the ruins of a village, rather than a religious site. Apparently snakes like it there, though, so we had to be careful. There was also quite a view down into the valley. Then we visited Bana, my favorite of the old churches. It was really, really, ruined, but in a very picturesque way. Apparently its current gravity-defying structure is the result of being used as a military installation in the Crimean and Russo-Turkish wars. It’s also located on a small rise in the middle of a broad valley surrounded on all sides by colorful mountains, giving you stunning views in all directions.


Ruins at Bana

One of the mini-vans got a flat tire at Bana, so we had to stop for repairs before we went on our way home. Along the road we saw the source of the Mtkvari, the river through Tbilisi. Our last stop was Seytan Castle (allegedly the setting of Georgia’s most famous epic poem, The Knight in the Panther Skin).


You remember “Where’s Waldo?”, right? This is “Where’s Em?” at Seytan Castle

We crossed back to Georgia at the Çıldır-Aktaş-Kartsakhi crossing point, which the internet says is closed, but seemed to work mostly fine for us (one of our drivers had a little trouble and was taken for interrogation because he had the same name as someone on the deportation list…it got sorted out, though). We returned to Tbilisi late at night, tired from a jam-packed three days of sightseeing.

I can’t write a post about traveling in Turkey and ignore the security/terrorism question. I thought long and hard before I chose to take this trip, and asked a lot of questions. I’m lucky that I have friends who are experts on security in the region, and family who support me in making these kinds of decisions. Just before I went to Tao-Klarjeti, the US State Department updated its Turkey travel warning, and it is kind of grim, so I debated this trip a lot. On the one hand, I really don’t want to get hurt, and on the other hand, I believe that staying at home, not going anywhere or doing anything out of fear is playing into the hands of terrorists. In summary: this particular area neither has much of a Kurdish population, nor is it near Syria, so in those ways it’s not a likely target. This is also a very sparsely populated area: the most populous town we spent any time in was Artvin, with a population of 25,771. I could count the number of other tourists we came across on my fingers. However, as this area was the Soviet-NATO border, there are a large number of military installations, and there is also a good amount of strategic infrastructure, particularly dams and reservoirs, which I was unaware of before I traveled. To be honest, there’s much more immediate danger from road accidents than there is from terrorism–the mountain roads were very steep and windy, though much better maintained than their Georgian equivalents. Overall, I didn’t feel that I was in any particular danger while I was there. My conclusion was (and is) that this is probably the safest area of Turkey to visit right now, but it’s not without risks (but even home is never 100% safe).

Original Post, March 9, 2012:
My friend came to visit me here in Kakheti last weekend, and we decided to go on a daytrip to the tourist town of Sighnaghi.  We tried to go on Saturday, but had a false start on the marshrutka and got tired of waiting so we returned to my house (since then I have found this fabulous online marshrutka timetable for Kakheti (unfortunately now defunct)–would have saved us SO much time).  We almost couldn’t believe it when the marshrutka came, and were giddy to be on our way off to Sighnaghi!

It’s still rather early for tourist season, so the tourist areas were not at all crowded.  The main attraction of Sighnagi is the old wall.  Climbing it you can see for miles, and the view is stunning!  We played on the wall, admired the view, and took photos for quite a while.


Em on the wall at Sighnaghi (photo from Marieka)

We then wandered around the old city–the architecture there really is beautiful!  Unfortunately, we then had a somewhat unpleasant visit to one of the old churches.  It is my understanding (and has been my experience) that in Georgia, as a rule, you do not have to pay to visit a church, though there are often  donation jars, and they often request that you leave a donation for the upkeep of the building, or buy the candle you will light in the church.  However, the man in the church (not a priest) seemed to disagree with this, and, as we were leaving, rather unpleasantly insisted we give him two lari because we had visited the church.

We decided not to visit the Sighnaghi museum, though I have heard it is good, and instead had Mexican food at the restaurant in Sighnaghi (there aren’t very many places to get Mexican food in Georgia, but this place is highly recommended).  We had a happily uneventful marshrutka ride home, and went back to our regular lives.

Sighnaghi has been the target of an intense campaign for the improvement of tourist infrastructure in the last few years.  There are some very obvious and helpful successes–there are signposts pointing to the various tourist attractions and “You are Here” maps throughout town.  Everything looks quite clean and well-kept, and buildings have been renovated and restored.  There’s a central marshrutka station, and public restrooms.  But some things still need work–the fantastic marshrutka schedule should really be better advertised.  Marshrutka travel is a bit haphazard, and for a major tourist destination, perhaps something a little more formal is in order (I assume most foreign tourists are expected to go by private car or chartered tour…)  Likewise, entry fees for attractions should be posted somewhere, and if entry is free no one should be demanding that visitors pay.

Despite a few hiccups, I highly recommend Sighnaghi as a tourist destination for a day–particularly if you’re interested in sampling Georgian wine (which we didn’t actually do.  This time.)


View of Sighnaghi from Bodbe (photo from Giga)

Update May 3, 2016:

I’ve been back to Sighnaghi a few times now, and have a few updates to offer. I STILL haven’t been to the museum. It has been closed many times that I’ve visited. We spent the weekend there for Orthodox Easter, and stayed at Leli’s Guest House, which was a pleasant and affordable option. We ate 3 of 4 meals at the Mexican restaurant–it had closed for a while, but is back in business and serving up really delicious food. Definitely worth a stop. Our 4th meal was at the famous Pheasant’s Tears winery. The wine was very good–delicious, and not at all the usual fare. The food was good, though the increase in quality did not match the increase in price, and it seems that something bothered my friend’s stomach. The staff were all lovely–I’d definitely stop in again for some wine, but would be more conservative with my food choices.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that during the weekend days, there were huge groups of tourists rolling through town. It seemed that most did not spend the night, but rather returned to Tbilisi, leaving plenty of accommodation options, and quieter evenings.

My trip to Poti was a bit different from most of my other travels, because I was not there as a tourist, but on a business trip. As such, I didn’t have a lot of time to putter around and see the sights, but I did stay in a hotel and eat in some local restaurants. In the center of the city is a quite large and pretty-looking park, though I didn’t have time to visit and stroll around. In the park is the city’s cathedral, which was modeled after the Hagia Sophia–I’d be curious to see which iteration of the Hagia Sophia it was inspired by, so if you visit, let me know! We also drove past some buildings that were clearly once stunning, but are far past their prime. If you’re into “derelicte” photography, you might find some interesting fodder in Poti. Over all, the city was much nicer than I expected from the fact that it’s a major working port, and that everyone scoffs upon hearing that you’re visiting Poti. We had bad luck with the weather, and I’ve heard that gray days are not exactly uncommon there.

One of my co-workers arranged accommodation for us at the Hotel Prime Poti, and I was pleasantly surprised. The rooms were clean and comfortable, with good heat and hot water. I’d heard horror stories about hotels with bedbugs in Poti, so I inspected the room quite carefully and didn’t find anything suspicious. The breakfast wasn’t anything to write home about, but it was included. Rooms were 70 GEL/night.


My only photo from Poti: The Hotel Prime…it’s better than it looks.


The food in Poti was not such a pleasant surprise, though. Knowing that Poti is in the Samegrelo region, famed for its cuisine, I had high hopes. I was sadly disappointed. Our first evening, we ate in the restaurant our local colleagues (and the Lonely Planet guide) recommended: Restaurant Aragvi. Lonely Planet describes it as “About 100m past Hotel Anchor, Aragvi serves up decent Georgian dishes amid decor of antlers and swords”[1] …I didn’t see any swords, but otherwise, I concur. One of my co-workers insisted on sampling a different restaurant the next day, so we went across the street to Restaurant Kalakuri. Our local co-workers mentioned it when pressed for suggestions beyond Aragvi, and said the khinkali there were OK. The khinkali were OK primarily because they seemed to be frozen khinkali, not homemade. The khachapuri was quite good (better than at the other place). The rest of the food was not good at all. Some of it was suffering from WAY too many greens being thrown in, and other dishes were victim of a Russian occupation–gobs of mayonnaise and handfuls of dill. We paid Tbilisi prices for this meal at 20 GEL/person; it cost twice what we paid at Aragvi (we did order more food, it’s true…but not double). I was very hungry and desperate for fruits and veggies when we returned to Tbilisi.

[1] Location 1961, Lonely Planet, John Noble, Danielle Systermans, and Michael Kohn. Lonely Planet Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan. 4th ed. London: Lonely Planet, 2012. Kindle eBook.


I first went to the Black Sea and played in the water at Anaklia five years ago (there wasn’t much there at the time), but I hadn’t actually gone swimming until this weekend. I joined some friends for a quick weekend trip to Batumi, but we actually decided to stay in Gonio, just to the South, instead. Gonio (and neighboring Kvariati–we stayed just a smidge on the Gonio side) is known for being quieter and better for swimming than Batumi, where the focus is on sunbathing, boardwalk entertainment, and seeing and being seen. The water is supposed to be clearer than in Batumi, and you could see the bottom as far out as I swam. The water temperature last weekend was perfect, and the swimming was really enjoyable.  The scenery was stunning–green mountains leading into the ocean. The beach looks like this, though, so if you’re planning on sunbathing you might want to bring something rather thick to lay on:

Gonio Beach

Gonio Beach

That rockiness continues out as far as I could touch, and I found myself wishing for the water shoes that I hated as a child but my mother made me wear when I went creeking. If you have anything of the sort, or any water-proof sandals that will stay on your foot (not flip-flops) I would strongly recommend that you throw them into your beach bag.


There are often jellyfish in the Black Sea, and while they aren’t usually the dangerous kind, a sting will hurt. There were a few teeny tiny little guys in the water while we were swimming. They freaked me out, especially as I felt them rather than saw them (very odd texture). They didn’t sting us, though.

We did our swimming and sunbathing at Gonio, but went into Batumi for dinners (Adjaruli khachapuri, of course) and entertainment. The Boulevard was in full swing, and there was something for everyone. Bicycle (and multi-person bicycle thingamabob) rentals, ping-pong and billiards, concerts, bars and restaurants, ice cream peddlers, statues to take photos with, a ferris wheel, dancing fountains, a “3-D Exhibition!” of the 7 Wonders of the World…plenty of options. I was actually really impressed. Though I’d been there before, I hadn’t seen it at it’s height. You could stay entertained there for quite a long time.

We also visited the Gonio fortress, which was a pleasant surprise for me. I didn’t know there was such a major historical site nearby. Admission is not expensive (3 GEL, if I recall correctly), and the complex, dating back to the Roman period, is extensive. There is also a small, air-conditioned museum (the air conditioning was pretty great after spending a lot of time out in the sun). The walls still look quite formidable (I don’t know how much work has been put into keeping them that way). Archeologists working at the site recently discovered some Roman mosaics, but we didn’t see them–I’m not sure if that’s because they aren’t yet on display to the public, or we didn’t make it to that section of the fortress. It’s nice to stop into the historical site and get a change of pace from the beach-centered attractions in most of the area.

My friends playing around in the fortress

My friends playing around in the fortress

For the return trip, I tried the Metro Georgia bus, and I was VERY pleased. I bought my ticket online in advance with no problems. The seats were spacious and comfortable; the entertainment system, WiFi and air conditioning were all in working order; and the whole process was easy and stress-free. The bus doesn’t have an on-board toilet, but there was a stop at the halfway point where people could use the toilets (30 tetri) and buy snacks. The route runs between Tbilisi and Batumi (and you can transfer on into Turkey or Armenia). You can also buy a ticket to intermediate stations. As I was on the bus on a Sunday night in high season, it was packed from end to end, and didn’t stop at the intermediate stations because no one was coming or going. This meant we also returned to Tbilisi a bit early than scheduled–a very pleasant surprise since I like my sleep.

Though a long distance to travel for a short trip, it was a lovely weekend getaway.

Batumi Skyline

Batumi Skyline

I’ve been to Batumi before. Twice, in fact. “Well, why didn’t you write about it, then?,” you might ask. Well…because both of my previous trips to Batumi were for less than 24 hours. Given the amount of time it takes to get to Batumi, the number of things to do there, and it’s popularity as a destination, I didn’t think it was worth writing about until I had a little more to go on.

For the weekend of Orthodox Easter (which happened to coincide with the April 9 commemoration) we had a 5-day weekend. I had thought about going abroad, or possibly even back to the US, but I decided that it would be far less stressful and far cheaper to take a mini-break in Georgia.

Due to the holidays and the off-season, though, I expected many of the attractions to be closed for at least 4 of the 5 days. It was also early spring, so I expected there would be a certain amount of cold and damp. That combination made me willing to shell out a bit more than usual to have a comfy place to hang out and read, rather than staying in a hostel or homestay like I usually do. I booked a room in the Plaza Hotel, because it was a great bargain for a place with a swimming pool and fitness center. They also provided free (pretty good) breakfast and parking which made it a good deal at the off-season prices. It’s located on the upper stories of a shopping mall, which is a bit odd, but doesn’t really make a difference in the long run. It does mean, though, that the sign outside does not say hotel anywhere (and if you go there, FYI: it’s on the opposite side of the street of where Google says). The swimming pool and fitness facilities were absolutely top-notch. They’re not actually part of the hotel, though, but a separate company in the same building who they have a relationship with. That usually wouldn’t matter, but it did mean that they were closed for two days of my stay. Sadness. There are also a few strange-to-an-American rules for using the fitness facility: you have to be checked by their doctor before you can use the facilities, and there are totally separate men’s and women’s gyms. Unfortunately the  “hotel-wide” WiFi didn’t reach the room very well, so I didn’t get caught up on my writing like I’d planned… Nonetheless, it was a comfortable and relaxing place to crash for the weekend.

View from the hotel balcony

View from the hotel balcony

All of my trips to Batumi have been by private car, which is by far the way to get there that requires the least planning. There are newly-opened stretches of highway bypassing the centers of Kutaisi and Kobuleti, which sped up the trip, and will be a great advantage for summer travel. The train, particularly overnight, is the most popular way of getting from Tbilisi to Batumi. For holiday weekends and in summer it is often sold out a few days in advance, so it’s not a good last-minute option. There are, of course, frequent marshrutkas (including overnight). There is also a new bus company with 6 departures a day in each direction. This option still seems little-known, but I hope they’re successful. My friend took this route, and said it was very comfortable and convenient. Their normal prices are competitive with the bus and marshrutka, but I saw that their office in Batumi was offering some introductory deals, which would make it a real bargain. (I don’t know how long those prices will be in effect, though.)

My first morning in Batumi I went and walked along the Boulevard, despite the blustery weather. Growing up, going to the beach was on the (Northern part of the) East Coast of the US, so I’m accustomed to cold, wind, and rain as par for the course. Many people don’t like the Batumi beach because it’s rocky, but again: that’s what I’m used to. There were very few people on the beach, which I prefer. I walked along, watching the waves, and looking at the sculptures. As I’ve said before, I really enjoy public art, so the Batumi Boulevard is a cool place to stroll.

The Black Sea (not a black and white photo, just highly gray weather)

The Black Sea (not a black and white photo, just highly gray weather)

Saturday, the only non-holiday, was the only day that I was sure attractions would be operating so we went to the Batumi Botanical Gardens just outside the city. They are a real treasure! (I’d also like to see the museums and dolphinarium sometime, but with limited time, I think I made the right choice). The territory was much, much bigger than I expected and the timing was lucky because most of the trees and bushes were in bloom (flowers will be a bit later in spring, I think). Though it was gray and dreary, the rain itself held off and the walk through the park was lovely. It’s along the coast, so in addition to the flowers and plants, there are lovely views of the sea and up and down the coast, both into farms and villages and across the bay to the sparkling skyscrapers of the city.

Rhododendron in the Batumi Botanical Garden

Rhododendron in the Batumi Botanical Garden

The city from the botanical garden

The city from the botanical garden

On Easter itself, most places were closed up tight, but I was surprised that the dancing fountains of Batumi Boulevard were still going strong in the evening, despite the holiday, the off-season and the poor weather. Though it’s maybe a bit hokey, it’s really fun to watch them. I got quite entranced by the lights and water. One upside to it is that it wasn’t nearly as crowded as in summer, so you could really see the show.

One of the main attractions of Batumi is eating Adjaruli khachapuri at Retro–widely considered the best. On this short trip, I went there twice, stopping in for some breakfast khachapuri the last day before departure. It was quite indulgent, but it was vacation! It makes a pretty good breakfast–bread, cheese,egg…it works. Since the whole idea of Batumi is that it’s at the seaside, I really wanted some fish. We found Black Sea Restaurant quite close to the fish market, and went in–the location is amazing, with picture windows looking out across the sea. They didn’t have very many options because the storms making the weather dreary were also affecting the catch, but what we got was delicious. I have no idea what it was, though. They were all small fish that were gutted and fried, and you were supposed to eat the whole thing, bones and all. That was actually OK, albeit crunchy, but it started to freak me out a little when I thought about it, so I pulled out the spines. The fish itself was really delicious and fresh, and the salad came with lovely fresh lettuce. It wasn’t a cheap place, but the food was all high quality. I had read great reviews of Ristorante Venezia inside the Intourist Palace, and Italian food sounded like a great change of pace, so I was looking forward to eating there. Unfortunately, it was the first time the Lonely Planet’s Georgia recommendations have every led me astray. The eggplant parmesan and salad were really good, but the spaghetti bolognese was so bland, and the bread was just sliced regular sandwich bread that costs 50 tetri, and the waitress brought the wrong beer. None of those things are particularly egregious, except for the fact that it was RIDICULOUSLY expensive (more than the same meal would have been in Tbilisi, and lower quality). It was 73 lari for 2 people! This was without appetizers or wine…they must have charged an arm and a leg for the bread and water, because the prices for entrees on the menu seemed normal. To top it off, they didn’t accept credit cards, which wouldn’t be unusual in a Georgian village, but in a major tourist area in a nice hotel with high prices, it’s unbelievable. It was mere luck that I had enough cash on me to cover the bill; I usually don’t carry large amounts.

The drive back was far more eventful than I had hoped. It wasn’t a surprise that there was a lot of traffic, since most of the population of Georgia had gone to their ancestral villages to celebrate Easter with their extended families and roll eggs over their ancestors’ graves. What was surprising, though, was the bumper-to-bumper traffic from Surami nearly to Gori. The two-lane two-way road had 5 lanes of cars going one way, including on both shoulders. I pity the people trying to go in the other direction! What is usually a one-hour drive took more than four! What’s worse is that it wasn’t a traffic jam with a cause; there were no accidents or working construction sites. It was caused purely by bad, selfish drivers. I’d never seen anything like it. We returned to Tbilisi at 11 PM having left Batumi at noon (we did make a stop for lunch). Usually that’s about 5 hours. It was insane.

Update: August 17, 2015. For a visit to the area during high season, including the boardwalk in full swing and a trip on MetroBus, check out my Postcard from Gonio

I finally visited the third of Georgia’s major cave cities: Vardzia (the others are Davit Gareji and Uplitsikhe). I went with a large group of co-workers and friends, including fellow blogger Jim.  He did a very good write-up of our trip, including lots of photos, so you should check out his thoughts as well. We also visited Rabati Castle on our excursion, but I’ve been there before and it hasn’t changed; still quite impressive!

Vardzia is located in the modern-day Samtskhe-Javakheti province, near the Turkish border, and not so far from Armenia. Most people visit as a day trip from Akhaltsikhe (hence the stop at Rabati) or Borjomi. We did it as a day trip from Tbilisi in a hired marshrutka. It was a long day (leading to some evening crankiness on my part), but definitely doable.

The road from Akhaltsikhe to Vardzia largely parallels the Mtkvari river (which might sound familiar as it’s the river through downtown Tbilisi). The hillsides along the river are terraced. Once upon a time, the terraces were full of grape vines for wine production, but most of them have fallen into disuse. Nonetheless, it leads to interesting scenery. The tourist infrastructure at the Vardzia site itself is well-developed (paved paths, fairly clean and equipped public restrooms, gift shop, ticket booth), though it didn’t look like the surrounding villages have too much in the way of hotels or restaurants; I’ve heard of some guest houses though. The view you see of the cave city from the parking lot is quite good–it shows the full extent of the remnants of the city, which is still quite big, despite suffering massive losses in a 13th-Century earthquake.

Vardzia from nearly the beginning

Vardzia from nearly the beginning of the tourist trail

One of the things that’s interesting about Vardzia is the variety of types of rooms contained in the complex. It was truly a city, not just a series of living caves; you can see a pharmacy and dining halls, in addition to multiple sizes of living quarters. The church has some interesting paintings–they show how Georgia’s artistic tradition at the time blended multiple influences, but also had its own unique traits.

Vardzia mural

Vardzia mural

The exit from the complex is through a tunnel that would have been used when the city was inhabited. I am a relatively normal-sized modern human (a little tall, but not shockingly so) and I am nearing the maximum size to go through that tunnel; some contortions were necessary. I also wouldn’t recommend it for people with knee problems. I don’t have bad knees in general, but the uneven steps were giving me a bit of an ache.

On our way back to Tbilisi, we stopped in the village of Akhaldaba, near Borjomi, to get some dinner. The village is famous for wood-oven khachapuri, and the restaurant we stopped at (the first one on the right after you enter the village’s restaurant area from Borjomi) did not disappoint on that front. All the food was good–we also ordered BBQ, mushrooms, and some vegetable salads. They also obligingly allowed us to bring our own wine (not so unusual in Georgia), cheese (a little more of a stretch), and tomatoes and cucumbers (which they shockingly even took into the kitchen and made into salad for us). This feast was an incredible bargain at just seven lari per person!

I’ve heard others say that Vardzia is above and beyond more interesting than the other cave cities in Georgia, but I disagree on that front. Vardzia is certainly a great place to visit, but it’s a time-consuming trip. If you want to see one of the cave cities, choose the site that is most interesting and convenient for you. While each of them is different, they are all interesting and impressive. If you only have a little time in Georgia, I’d recommend seeing Uplitsikhe, as it’s easier to access, and the stories I heard about it’s history were more interesting to me personally.

Not exactly a tourist attraction; gum stuck to a tree along the tourist path at Vardzia. It looks cool until you realize what it is

Not exactly a tourist attraction; gum stuck to a tree along the tourist path at Vardzia. It looks cool until you realize what you’re looking at…

Tserovani is definitely not a tourist attraction; it’s one of the settlements built for people displaced by the 2008 Russia-Georgia War. Going there just to have a gander would be in poor taste, at best. However, visitors who come to Georgia with a particular interest in the region’s politics and history are often very curious about what life is like in the IDP communities. If that’s the case, there are ways where you can visit in a way that is beneficial to the community. The local NGO “For a Better Future” is based and works in this community, doing a variety of community-building and livelihood-development projects, and they offer a great way to visit Tserovani, talk to the people, and have a fun time. They’re working to build marketable skills and create jobs in the community, and one of the ways they’re doing that is by teaching women to make traditional enamel jewelry (samples of their beautiful work here) through social enterprise. They’ve taken it a step further, though, and also offer workshops where the enamel artists will teach visitors how to make a piece of jewelry. I’ve been twice, and think it’s pretty awesome. The information for registering is on their website here. The director speaks English well, and many of the artists are studying English. The first time I attended, they had a Peace Corps volunteer as well, so language is really no problem. The provide you with a light lunch of specialties from South Ossetia, which has included things like Ossetian khachapuri (khabizgina) with potato, lobiani, fruit, and a special, delicious cake traditionally made only in Akhalgori. The artist-teachers are very sweet and helpful, and strike the right balance between making sure you get a good final product, and giving you creative license. Part of the idea is also to build relationships between the IDPs, other Georgians, and foreigners, so a little friendly chit-chat is part of the event. It’s a lovely way to learn more about the IDP community, and get a pretty amazing hand-made souvenir from Georgia. I highly recommend it!

Jewelry made by my friends and I at the enamel workshop

Jewelry made by my friends and I at the enamel workshop

Armenia is so close, but I hadn’t managed to make the trip until this spring. It had always been one thing and then another, but this time I had decided, and (despite putting off the trip for a week because I came down with another cold), even my travel buddies backing out didn’t stop me. So I was off on a solo 2-day trip to Yerevan!

My research told me that from Avlabari metro station, you can take either a marshrutka or a shared taxi to Yerevan. I went the night before to change money and make sure that was the case, and was told there were only marshrutkas, and no taxis. Though I have seen the taxi parked there many times in the past, it wasn’t around that day. The next morning, I had a Georgian come with me to see me off, and he was told the same thing (making me feel better about my communication skills, if not about the details of the trip). I’m not sure if the system has changed, or someone was just on vacation that particular week. The “marshrutka” that I took though wasn’t the usual marshrutka, though, it was a mini-van, so maybe it’s just a big taxi? The important thing is that it got me to Yerevan in relative comfort.

At the land border, you leave your vehicle and go through the border on foot. First, you show your passport and leave Georgia (FYI, there are public restrooms on the Georgian side), then you cross the river, and show your passport to enter Armenia.  Armenian visa rules have changed a lot in the time I’ve been in Georgia, but I didn’t need a visa at all, yay! If you need one (check online for your country before you go), the visa-on-arrival office is pretty easy to spot–a bit before the border off the left side of the road. The Armenian border guard was quite suspicious of the extra pages added to my passport, and called his supervisor, who recognized it as normal and let me right through. Made me a bit nervous, though. One of the fellow passengers in my marshrutka (who had been very nicely making sure I went to the right place and did the right thing) had some trouble with his dual Georgian and Armenian passports, and had to pay a fine before he could enter, so we got a bit held up waiting for him. We did wait, though I have heard horror stories of marshrutkas just taking off without any passengers who were taking too long.

It seems there isn’t one direct major road into Yerevan, so there are many possible routes. Friends have told me that they went through Spitak and saw the ruins from the 1988 earthquake. While I suppose that’s interesting in it’s own way, I think I lucked out with the route my marshrutka took. We took an Eastern route through Tavush province, and it has some of the most beautiful mountains I’ve seen–craggy and spiky, but with lush green vegetation. We went through a pass, and I was surprised to see Lake Sevan on the other side; it looks like a lovely place to go and relax. There was still snow in the mountains surrounding it, which lead to really impressive scenery. It was also a perfect sunny spring day, which helped to leave a good impression. In one of the towns along the road, the van was pulled over by the police for speeding, and the driver may have been asked for a bribe (he neither confirmed nor denied when the other passengers asked him). That was a first.

We arrived at the Yerevan bus station at about 2:30 and I had to find my way to the hostel. My friend who used to spend a lot of time in Yerevan had told me that it shouldn’t be more than 1000 dram to take a taxi anywhere within the city, so when I was accosted with taxi drivers offering to take me for just 3000 dram, I knew to refuse. They eventually went down to 1500, but I stuck to my guns and went elsewhere to find a cab. My friend had also warned me to take the officially registered taxis with yellow plates, not the ones with white plates, and it took me a while to flag down one of those. When I did, I had a very pleasant driver take me to my destination for just 700 dram on the meter, but it did take a while, and might have been worth it to save the time and pay more.

I stayed at Envoy Hostel, which I found deserving of its stellar reputation. It’s a standard hostel, but they’ve thought of all the little details to make it easy: lockers in the rooms, shelves in the bunks, a place to hang clothes in the shower. The staff were really helpful, and created an atmosphere where other guests were friendly but not over-bearing. And the shower was great and the bed was comfy.

After dropping off my backpack, I headed first to the National History Museum which was pretty good–I particularly liked the exhibit on textiles that had lots of gorgeous carpets. Of course I knew that Armenia, like Georgia, was part of the ancient world and had contact with the major civilizations, but I didn’t realize quite how much. The museum has a series of cuneiform tablets that were pretty amazing to see in person. (The exhibit of stone phalli was oddly extensive). Then I headed to the Matenadaran Manuscript Museum, but they were closing when I arrived, so I didn’t make it in. I’ve heard it’s one of the most interesting tourist attractions, though. On my walk there, I experienced something amazing. As I was nervously trying to cross six lanes of traffic with no signal or underpass in sight, all the cars stopped to let me cross! It was an incredible experience after being in Tbilisi. I wanted to go back and do it again!

Then I walked over to the Cascade, and looked at the statues. I’m a sucker for good public art.

At the Cascade. Took this to prove I was actually in Yerevan, and didn't just steal some photos and stories from the web.

At the Cascade. Took this to prove I was actually in Yerevan, and didn’t just steal some photos and stories from the web.

I had been told that “West Armenian” food was basically Middle Eastern (as opposed to regular Armenian food). So I excitedly went to a random West Armenian restaurant for dinner. The hummus was great, but the sandwich the waitress recommended was just a glorified and marked-up shawarma, which was fine but not what I wanted. I wandered the city a bit in the dark, and celebrated the lovely spring weather with an ice cream cone. I returned worn-out to the hostel, and chatted with my roommate for some advice on the next day’s adventures. It turned out that many of the museums and tourist attractions were closed on Sundays. Oops. Missed that in my pre-trip research.

I woke up that morning, and set off to see the city from Mother Armenia, but I didn’t find the right road before it started raining. I happened to be at the Cascade and next to the Cafesjian Center for the Arts, so I decided to wait out the storm by checking out the collection. Some of the exhibits were paid, and some were free. Honestly, the free exhibits were the ones I found most interesting, but nonetheless the small entry fee didn’t feel like a waste. The set-up is a bit strange, though. To reach certain galleries you have to take the escalator up to a certain elevator, which you then take down to the gallery. It was strange at first, but I got the hang of it quickly. Some of the galleries also required walking across a courtyard. When the rain let up, I went to the Vernissage Market, like my roommate had recommended. It’s not unlike the Dry Bridge here in Tbilisi, but I think it’s a bit bigger. Some of the souvenir handcrafts are pretty similar, but there are also clearly country-specific specialties. In particular, they still make carpets in Armenia, and the carpet section of the market is a really impressive sight. I then went to try to find some food (lots of restaurants were closed, too!). My final stop was a grocery store for “souvenirs”: prepared hummus, cognac, and Armenian chocolates. The hostel had very helpfully arranged to have the taxi/marshrutka (same type of vehicle, but this time they called it a taxi) pick me up at the hostel. We took the same route back, and arrived back to Avlabari at about 8 on Sunday.

If I go back, I would visit the Matenadaran and the Armenian Genocide Memorial/Museum. I would recommend the stops I made, with those additions. It’s possible to see Yerevan in a weekend from Tbilisi–I don’t think I didn’t get a true taste of the city, but a three-day weekend would give you more flexibility, particularly since so many things are closed on Sundays.

Part of the charm (?) of a trip to Svaneti is the ungodly hour at which you must depart–apparently regardless of whether you leave from Tbilisi or Zugdidi, or if you take the public marshrutka or charter a private one.  (Maybe the flights leave at a more decent hour, but given the reputation of flights in Georgia, I’m skeptical).  Unfortunately, our tour guide missed the memo about our departure time (although he presumably had written said memo) and we ultimately departed at a reasonable hour after waiting for him for over an hour.  Finally, after stopping to pick up a random family (on a chartered marshrutka–I don’t know) we were on our way to Svaneti! Huzzah!

And then we stopped at Martvili Canyon, which is actually a relatively interesting place, except for the fact that we had no idea what we were doing there, which hampered our enjoyment a bit.  Nonetheless, it was a lovely location for a picnic lunch.  We continued on, and then stopped again at the Dadiani Palace in Zugdidi.  Once again this is a place with the potential to be interesting, but our visit didn’t go quite that way.  I love a good museum tour, but ours was not.  We didn’t get any stories or explanation of why the Dadianis were important.  Rather, we were given a list of objects in the house as we walked past them: “Candlestick. Table. Painting. Library. Napoleon’s death mask–wait, what?.” (I’ve asked around about that death mask, and I haven’t really gotten much more information beyond that to share)

After departing Zugdidi, we were finally on our way into Svaneti and the mountains.  We made a quick scenic overlook stop at the Jvari-Enguri Reservoir created by the Inguri dam, and to be honest it was one of the highlights of the trip.  For those interested in such things, it’s the second highest concrete arch dam in the world, and while I’m not sure exactly what that means, I can tell you that it is an incredibly impressive structure.  The reservoir was absolutely gorgeous, a huge body of stunningly clear turquoise water that looked like the Caribbean had been transplanted amidst the Caucasus mountains.

Group photo at the Jvari Enguri Reservoir (from my co-worker, Maka)

Group photo at the Jvari-Enguri Reservoir (from my co-worker, Maka)

We continued along the road, which follows the Enguri river out of the reservoir and into the heart of Svaneti.  Near the town of Khaishi, the Nenska river meets the Enguri, and from the bridge you can clearly see the confluence of the slate-colored Enguri and the turquoise Nenska as they roil and mix together.  The road itself is new, and really quite good. It’s quality was similar to that of a mountain road in a US National Park–windy, but in decent repair.  In fact, it was far less of a white-knuckle ride than the Georgian Military Highway.  We arrived in Mestia after dark, and didn’t see much of the place, just a short wander in the evening and a photo walk in the morning. Seems like a nice enough town, and the fabled Svan towers do indeed exist. Even if you don’t have time to stop in the museum (we didn’t, though I’ve heard it’s very well-done), the view from the roof is worth a visit for lovely views of Mestia.  That’s where almost all of my photos of Mestia are from.



We left right after breakfast for a trip to Ushguli, the highest-elevation village in Europe that is inhabited year-round, and home of more Svan towers.  The road between Mestia and Ushguli is starting to get paved, and although there’s a long way to go, it has already made the trip faster than I’d heard it would be.  It is, of course, a stunningly beautiful drive.  One worthwhile pit-stop on the road is the Love Tower near the village of Ipari.  Due to the lack of gender pronouns in Georgian, I’m a little unclear as to the specifics of the story of the Love Tower, but in short there was a boy from one village and a girl from another village (perhaps the villages were feuding, this is Svaneti), and there was a war.  The girl promised to wait for the boy, but he never returned, nonetheless, she remained faithful to his memory.  His/Her/Their father(s) built the Love Tower in his/her/their honor.  It’s in a lovely location alongside the river, and for a 1 lari admission fee you can clambor about the tower, which is lots of fun!

Ushguli. The clouds and fog cleared a bit later in the afternoon, allowing for a glimpse of Shkhara

The clouds and fog cleared a bit later in the afternoon, allowing for a glimpse of  the base of Shkhara.

It was rainy in Ushguli itself, but still lovely. We wandered around, looking at nothing in particular, and got very behind schedule.

On our trip, we glimpsed the iconic peak of Ushba out our marshrutka window, but not at an angle that allowed photographs, and saw the bottom of Shkhara, the highest point in Georgia, though most of it was wreathed in clouds, it was nonetheless beautiful and dramatic.  The views of the mountains are one of the main attractions of Svaneti, and even though we were not blessed with perfect weather, the scenery was worth the trip.  However, the rain which had turned into serious thunderstorms (people were actually killed when a road washed out in Imereti) led to an unpleasant drive from Mestia back to Tbilisi.

I offer you two take-aways from my trip to Svaneti:  1) It is beautiful and well worth a visit, particularly for more than 48 hours (including driving time) 2) Don’t hire the cheapest tour company you can find–though it does lead to an entertaining tale, it’s also rather stressful to always be behind schedule and clueless (I’ve left out some of the details for the sake of brevity and not being a whiner).

Summer in Tbilisi traditionally means not working very hard and taking lots of trips to the village.  As you can see by the recent lack of blog posts, I’ve been blogging on summer time.  I have also done a few trips out of the city, though. Most of them are to places I’ve written about before, so they won’t result in any new posts for your reading pleasure.  However, I did visit one place I haven’t written about before (despite having been there on two previous occasions): the archeological site at Dmanisi.  I first heard of Dmanisi in my Physical Anthropology class back in college (which you can now take online here).  It’s the site of the oldest hominid remains outside Africa.  As if that alone weren’t interesting enough, there are actually three archeological sites piled one on top of the other–at the surface, there are Medieval ruins that I’ve heard associated with King/Queen Tamar (WIkipedia suggests an association not with her, but with David the Builder).  That citadel was apparently an important stop on the old Silk Road.  The 6th Century church is still in use, and features happy frolicking kittens. I highly recommend clamboring up the ruins (because you can do that in Georgia) for a nice view and picnic spot.

I didn't take many pictures of the buildings or ruins because I had old ones on my harddrive.  Then it crashed.  So here's a picture of a kitten behind you.  The stones behind it are part of an old church. I promise.

I didn’t take many pictures of the buildings or ruins because I had old ones on my harddrive. Then it crashed. So here’s a picture of a kitten for  you. The stones behind it are part of an old church. I promise.

The next layer is a bronze age site–I don’t believe much excavation has been done for that period–I haven’t heard much about what was going on there.  This could be a factor of the people I know, or because it’s generally considered less interesting than what lies beneath.  The site with the hominid remains, known as the “Champagne Room” because of the large number of important finds there, is the real gem of an attraction.  It’s managed by the Georgian National Museum, and the enclosed area contains a few interpretive exhibits (a bronze-age grave, artists’  reconstructions of the hominids, some bones, etc) and a video introduction to the site.  All-in-all, it’s a nicely put-together mini-museum.  Admission into the enclosed area is 3 GEL.

Museum at Dmanisi

Museum at Dmanisi

Outside the museum area, you’re free to wander the general area–there’s a row of statue-type things, the ruins of the citadel, another archeological site, and some fields.  Walking to the end of the area to look out over the promontory is quite nice.  I particularly liked that area, because the theory is that the promontory over the two rivers made the area strategically important, both for defense and for hunting, and explain why there is so much history in this place.  There appear to be some ruins across the river, as well, though I don’t know exactly what they are.  The area is in general, a nice change from Tbilisi, a bit cooler with much fresher air, and therefore a pleasant place to just relax and explore.

So, you may ask, how do I get to Dmanisi?  Well, my friends and I copped out and took a cab–Meghan has a good driver who does excursions, so we just called him up and he gave us a fair price, saving us a lot of hassle.  The site is accessible by public transportation, but there are only a few marshrutkas a day, so it isn’t something you’d want to do if you have pressing commitments (like work) the next day, which we all did.  My expert sources tell me that although there are marshrutkas labeled “Dmanisi” it’s better to take the one that says “Mashavera” because that village is on the same side of the mountain as the archeological site. Good tip.  These marshrutkas all leave from Samgori station in Tbilisi.  There aren’t many (OK, any) tourist facilities near the site, so you’ll want to bring water and snacks.  You could even stop at the new McDonald’s in Marneuli on your way there.