Archives for category: Travel
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The beach chairs on Gonio beach in previous summers

Seriously, Gonio beach chair people? You don’t get the whole beach! You can see from the photo of a previous summer, there were quite a few beach chairs for rent on the beach in previous summers, but in summer 2017 the problem really exploded. There wasn’t any beach left WITHOUT beach chairs on it, and the beach chair attendants wouldn’t allow you to move one. The prices aren’t too bad, at 6 GEL/hour, but if I have brought my own chair or mat from home, I don’t really need a beach chair, and I still have a right to use some part of the public beach. There are way more beach chairs for rent than there is demand. The attendant finally relented and let us use a little patch of beach, since we argued that since there were 20 chairs in a row unoccupied, it probably wouldn’t make much of a difference to his bottom line.  Come on now, folks. I applaud the entrepreneurial spirit, but it’s a public beach. You can’t take the whole thing. Capitalism: you’re doing it wrong.

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The accepted way to spend a summer vacation in Georgia is to head to the Black Sea coast. Some people prefer Kobuleti, others Batumi. Usually I stay in Gonio, as it’s a bit cheaper than Batumi but very close by, and the water is cleaner and more pleasant for swimming. This year, I stayed in Gonio again, in the same guesthouse that I have for the past few years, but had a very different trip. This time, we did the MOUNTAINS. The weather wasn’t very good at the beach, and I’ve seen the Botanical Garden and the Boulevard a few times (not that they’re not still fun), but I was looking for something new. This time we had a reliable car, so we went exploring. One day, we set off on the back road to Akhaltsikhe. The road goes along a very wide and scenic river, so there are lots of beautiful views. The name of a village caught our eye: Bzubzu (that sounds funny in Georgian, too), so we turned and drove up that road. It was a surprisingly good road, and we followed it for a while taking in the scenery and fresh air before coming back down the mountain and returning to the main road.

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BZUBZU (and awkwardly placed cow)

As we drove on, we noticed multiple rafting companies operating and a number of wine cellars open to tourists. There seemed to be lots of tour groups visiting, as well. There was a medieval bridge, an early Soviet aqueduct and a few waterfalls, all with people gathered around taking photos. (I’m also guilty…the photo of me posing with Akhali Cola in my summer favorites was taken atop the Soviet aqueduct)

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Funny sign at Mtirala National Park HQ

Our next adventure was to Mtirala (literally “weeping”) National Park, the rainiest place in Georgia. True to its name, it was indeed raining off and on as we drove to the park headquarters. Unlike the road into the mountain villages, this road was shockingly bad. I’m really not sure how the little Prius made it. If we’d had more time, hiking in wouldn’t have been a bad idea. We did the short hike to the waterfall, and the trail was very well-marked and -maintained. Some of our party, however, complained that we had had to walk so far just to see some water. Hiking’s not for everyone, I guess. On the return leg, it started raining in earnest, so we skipped stopping to see the lake. We returned to the visitor center to have a picnic, but they were charging a fee for tables, so they suggested we go next door to the restaurant next door where we could use a table for free (Capitalism: you’re doing it wrong). Then we hit the road back and crept across all the potholes back to Chakvi.

Our final excursion into the mountains came on Eid, or Kurban Bayramoba as it’s called in Georgian. The owner of the guesthouse where we were staying is an Adjaran Muslim, and he invited us to celebrate with him and his friends on the mountaintop near the village. Of course we said yes! This time the trusty little Prius nearly didn’t make it (it overheated a few times–despite the high altitude chill–so we had to stop multiple times on the way up to let it cool down). The host’s estimation of how long it took to get to the village was a vast underestimate. Then, we weren’t actually visiting the village, but the mountaintop nearby. It took a REALLY long time to get up there. The village was a little place named Tsablana, and they tell me the mountain is called Ghomis Mta, though I can’t confirm that on any maps. Ghomis Mta translates literally to “Grits Mountain” and there’s a great story for why it’s called that. Two neighboring villages disputed which village owned the mountain, so they agreed to a contest to settle the matter. Whichever village could bring hot food to the top of the mountain faster, and without the food getting cold would get ownership of the mountain. Those silly people in the other village prepared the Adjaran specialty of borano which is very delicious, but apparently doesn’t hold its heat very well. The wily Tsablanans, however, made the Megrelian staple ghomi (grits). Even wilier, they put a fire-warmed stone underneath the food so that it would stay hot longer. Tsablana’s trick worked, and they gained claim over the mountain. So this is where we gathered with our host and his friends to celebrate Eid with a feast. They grilled fish and chicken over a fire, and we had fresh fruits and veggies and some cold khinkali. And lots of wine and chacha (level of observance of Islam: pork, no; alcohol, yes). I was delighted that the mountaintop was covered in juicy sweet wild blueberries (they’re hard to buy here!). I’m told the view is stunning on a clear day and you can see the few kilometers into Turkey, but we only saw mist:

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Misty view from Ghomis Mta

I can’t believe it took me this long to get into Mountainous Adjara, and there’s still so much left to explore!

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Wildflowers and mountains, very Bakuriani

I FINALLY made it to Bakuriani! It’s odd that I’d never been there before, as it’s just up the mountain from Borjomi, one of my favorite weekend getaways. I went there a different way than I usually travel, though; I was teaching at a summer camp held there. It was, to be honest, a pretty sweet gig (despite some incredibly rude kids): as a teacher I wasn’t responsible for the kids outside my class hours, so I got to have plenty of free time to read novels, go on walks, and catch up on Jane the Virgin. Bakuriani is primarily famous as a ski resort, but they’ve done quite well in marketing themselves as a summer destination, too. The place was full of summer camps and families relaxing outside the heat of Tbilisi. Though room rates are cut in half for summer, it looked like the hotel was making a fairly good profit selling the campers Coca-Cola and ice cream. It was on average about 10*C cooler in Bakuriani than back in Tbilisi, making the weather just lovely. We were lucky to have sunshine for the majority of our time there, and somehow I didn’t spot any mosquitoes!

Since camp was keeping the hotels quite full, I actually spent time in three different hotels: Hotel Ritza, Hotel Ana-Maria, and Hotel Edemi.  None of them were perfect, but all of them were quite good–especially for the summer season prices. I was definitely comfortable. They all seem to be managed by the same people, but Ana-Maria was the most recently renovated.

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View of Aghmashenebeli Street from below, where Hotels Ritza (the big yellow one left of center), Ana-Maria, and Edemi are located.

Since I was at summer camp, I didn’t try any of the restaurants in town, eating with the camp at Ritza. The strawberry-apple jam and (home made?) pelmeni were excellent (though pelmeni for breakfast was hard on my stomach). Other meals were less impressive, but nothing was disgusting or anything. Likewise, I can’t comment on transportation to Bakuriani, as I traveled on the camp bus, though I hear the train up from Borjomi is wonderful.

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Thunderstorms rolling in over the mountains at dusk

Everyone working in the little shops in town was incredibly friendly and helpful (not always the norm), and I really liked walking around, poking in various places, and exploring. The town layout was pretty simple, so I never worried about getting lost. One nice little walk was to a suspended footbridge behind the “Bakuriani Resorts” hotel (I think that’s near the “Otsdakhutianebi” ski slope. Visiting the Didveli ski slope and taking the cable car up was also fun, but be warned–5 GEL only gets you halfway up; you’ll need to spend another 5 GEL for the next cable car further to the top (I didn’t…this time). There’s quite a lot to do in Bakuriani (I didn’t have time to do it all): it has one of the few cinemas outside of Tbilisi, there’s an amusement park and a botanical garden, and you can rent horses, bicycles or ATVs to go for a ride. The scenery is beautiful, and in early July, at least, all the meadows were full of wildflowers. Bakuriani is definitely a nice place to escape the summer heat and relax–I hope to go back sometime soon, maybe I’ll even try skiing.

I kept delaying this post as I tried to get the names of villages from a friend who was keeping track, but that never happened and it’s now embarrassingly late to post about last summer’s travels, so let’s call this an anniversary “throw-back” post, with a little less detail than originally planned. This trip was to the Lechkhumi portion of the Raja-Lechkumi and Kvemo Svaneti Region of Georgia which is in the north and center-west of the country and part of the Greater Caucasus. I visited in July 2016. #TBT

 

We started the weekend with the drive to Kutaisi, from whence we went into Lechkhumi via the village of Rioni, mostly following the Rioni river. This route was beautiful, but the roads were bad (we had car trouble in a Delica!), so I wouldn’t recommend it for independent travel. We stopped at a few waterfalls along the road, and visited a variety of village churches, some with beautiful frescoes. One of the last towns we stopped in featured a cemetery with nicely decorated gravestones and a treehouse which was fun to climb. Down the road a bit was a beautiful panoramic view, where we could apparently see into Svaneti. The only village name I remember on this route is Lailashi, which I remember because we ran out of time to go there. At the end of the day, we arrived in Tsageri to a cheap home-stay that let some members of our group camp in the yard for free while the rest of us paid for beds in the house.

The next day, we woke up and headed to the Tsageri museum which was EXCELLENT–one of the best curated museums I’ve visited in Georgia. It housed taxidermy, ancient artifacts (coins, statues, and weapons), photography, and other bits and bobs all labelled in understandable English. The director of the museum (I think…the man who showed us around) is also, apparently, an artist and he showed us some of his work as well. The whole town of Tsageri was really impressive. The locals clearly care for their town; everything looked well-maintained and tidy. I’ve since met someone who grew up in Tsageri and he agreed with my conclusion, saying people only leave because there are so few jobs there. I’ve seen plans to re-build the airport and build a football stadium to international standards in the town, so maybe that trend will stop.

Our next stop was the fortress overlooking Tsageri, which guarded the crossroads between the different principalities in the medieval period. At this time, the weather was starting to turn for the worse, so we spent a lot of time fiddle-faddling around deciding whether or not to go up to the summit of Khvamli Mountain. We actually went halfway up, decided to turn around and visit Tskaltubo instead, and then went back all the way to the top the next time. The view from Khvamli was incredible, and the clouds causing the poor weather made the view mystical and magical, but I really could have done without all the indecision and time-wasting. We did end up with some nice photos, though.

Then we were back on the road to Kutaisi via Tskaltubo and then home to Tbilisi, tired after a busy weekend and a lot of fresh air. Unlike the other road, this road was very good quality. It you’re flying into Kutaisi and want to visit the mountains, Tsageri and Khvamli might be a good, accessible option. It’s certainly a beautiful corner of Georgia.

Having spent most of May injured and recuperating, I was itching to get out of the city and be active now that I was feeling better, but I was sure that my endurance had taken a hit from not doing much other than stretching for a month. A friend posted on Facebook that he was organizing a group hike to Lagodekhi, and it was suitable for beginners, so it seemed like it could be the perfect thing for me to get back at it. I’ve heard Lagodekhi is beautiful, but I’d never been there, and it was supposed to be a fairly flat and easy trail. Perfect! But the weather foiled our plans. Weather reports were divided as to whether or not it was raining in Lagodekhi at the time of our departure, but there had been 3 days of rain before, so the trail would have been MUDDY. We decided as a group to go instead to Ateni in Shida Kartli, where the weather was supposed to be lovely. One of my co-workers has a village house in Ateni, and she always brings us the most wonderful fruit from her orchard, so it seemed like a fine idea to me.

Ateni isn’t a very long drive from Tbilisi, so that’s definitely a mark in its favor. It took us a few tries to locate the right bridge in the village to start our hike from, but once we were there we began by following the road through the village up the hill easily enough (the entire hike followed that road, though “road” became a less accurate description the further we went). I was off to a good start, feeling strong on my way up the hill. I started to feel it right before the trail split, though. There was a fortress (I believe it was Veres Tsikhe) off to the left, and we were given the option to either go see the fortress, or take a little break. Though I love fortresses, I knew I should conserve my energy, so I sat and took a break with another girl in the group.

The others returned, citing steep walls and snakes (!) and we were off on our hike again. This section of the trail was much harder than before as it was pretty much straight up the mountain, and I was definitely starting to get tired. Every time I thought we’d reached the summit, another hill appeared beyond the meadow. One time we even left the trail and were climbing a hill so steep the ground was nearly right in front of my face. After I while I was only managing to trudge 3 steps before taking a mini-break, with my hip flexors aching all the way (that was new! Usually it’s my thighs that burn from hiking).

I thought we’d reached the top, but was confronted with yet another hill before we reached the church. But, you know what? I was done. I’ve never done that before…given up and stopped. But this hike was much harder than I had planned, and I was starting to wonder if I would have the strength to get back down the mountain. I’ve also seen plenty of Georgian churches at this point. I was in a safe and comfortable place, so I told the others to go on without me, and I waited in that nice mountain meadow. I made sure the friend I had come with and the hike leader knew where I was, and I dropped a pin on Google maps and sent my location to a friend not in the group, and then I just laid down in that meadow and rested. Actually, I had a really great time there, watching the clouds and thinking. I initially wished I had brought my Kindle, or that my phone had gotten internet reception, but in the end I only got bored about 10 minutes before the others returned. It took them more than 2 and a half hours to get up and back (they had estimated 45 minutes), so it was a difficult hike. Apparently that section of trail was really muddy and slippery, making it even more of a challenge. Staying was 100% the right decision for me at that time. When they returned, some of the others told me they wished they had stayed with me, and even those who didn’t mind the hike said that the view wasn’t so much better to justify the difficult walk (some of them may have been trying to make me feel better, but I don’t think all of them were).

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The church I did not visit atop the mountain I did not climb.

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The sights I saw on this trip.

Refreshed, I kept up with the others and was able to chat and socialize on the way down, which seemed so much shorter! The scenery was pretty and I didn’t re-injure myself, so even though I had to give up, I’m calling the day a success.

Note: I believe the fortress I didn’t visit was Veres Tsikhe, and though I’m pretty sure I located the “road” we followed on the map, I can’t find a name for the church at the top.

Now that the high season is upon us, I’ll tell you the things that everyone else has forgotten to mention.

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Clockwise from top left: A marshrutka station in Sagarejo, Former roommate S models some Borjomi water while hiking in Borjomi, a zebra crossing (photo from Jim (for another project, but fits here perfectly), my former host sister Ani and I in “church clothes”, some delicious but heavy adjaruli khachapuri.

#1 Don’t cross the street! Of course you have to get to the other side of the street, but don’t just traipse across. If it looks difficult to cross, that’s because it is. The busiest streets will have either underpasses or pedestrian bridges every few blocks. Look for those; it’s worth it. If there isn’t one, the designated crossing place will be painted on the road with zebra stripes, but it’s much, much better to find one at a traffic light, and even then you have to be careful. The ones unattached to traffic lights are mostly decorative in practice, and the one on the Embankment near Dry Bridge is basically nothing (go up the hill to the park and cross the bridge itself to the flea market)

#2 Go easy on the Georgian food the first few days. Georgian food is amazing, and probably part of the reason you chose to come here, but “Tbilisi Tummy” is common and will really put a damper on your travels, so go easy at first. Many of the iconic Georgian dishes (I’m looking at you, khachapuri and khinkali) are greasy and heavy and hard to digest, and not all places will be up to the hygiene standards you may be used to, so let yourself adjust for a few days before you hit the supra hard. There is plenty of good, light fare available (even in a typical Georgian restaurant). If you want to gird your digestive system with fermented foods, Georgian pickles are delicious (especially jonjoli, my favorite!) and Georgian yogurt (matsoni) is cheap, tasty, and easily available.

#3 Pack a scarf and a skirt. A large number of the tourist attractions are churches, and almost all Georgian Orthodox churches require that women wear a skirt and have their hair covered. Some of them provide various wraps at the door and some don’t; some of those provided are clean… You’ll be much more comfortable and likely to see what you came for if you just bring your own. Some churches don’t mind, some are even stricter (I’ve heard stories that Gergeti Sameba in Kazbegi won’t let people wear glasses inside?!?), but scarf and skirt is the norm. For the fellows–no shorts.

#4 Smile? Many Americans’ default facial position is a smile, and that’s not the case in Georgia. If you want to attract the attention of someone across the bar (/metro car), smiling is a good way to do it. If you’d rather be left alone, relaxing your face will reduce (though may not eliminate) unwanted attention.

#5 If you choose to use the marshrutka system, have faith in it. I know the marshrutka system seems like it will never work, but it really does work fairly efficiently. It’s by far the cheapest way to get around, though there will be a certain amount of standing by the road and waiting. Be patient. If you are on the right route (check with some locals if you’re nervous about that, but honestly there aren’t very many roads, so it’s unlikely they took a detour), it will come eventually. If the marshrutka isn’t your style, there’s no shame in that; there are also trains and buses, or you can hire a taxi (or rent a car, or hitchhike, or join an organized excursion). Don’t expect the marshrutka to be something it’s not, and you’ll avert a lot of disappointment.

#6. Stay hydrated. It can get hot here. Even though it may be cool in the mountains, you’re at a higher elevation. You’re probably going to be drinking some wine, and maybe even some chacha. You might be walking/hiking a lot. Bottled water is cheap (starting at 50 tetri/bottle) and sold everywhere, and Georgia is famous for its mineral water. Most towns even have free public drinking fountains, and there are lots of mountain springs (the water is usually OK to drink, but make your own risk assessment based on your health, background, and location). You’ll be a much happier camper if you aren’t thirsty.

Any others with experience travelling here have some advice I missed?

Any questions, class?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

The Loneliest Planet (Image from Wikipedia)

The Loneliest Planet

Language: English, some Georgian (not meant to be understood), Spanish verb declensions (good practice for me!)

Availability: available on DVD in the US

I can’t really say if this film was good or bad. It isn’t really a movie, as much as it is a gorgeously-filmed hike. Basically, you watch Gael Garcia Bernal, Hani Furstenberg and Bidzina Gujabidze hike through the Caucasus Mountains and deal with interpersonal issues. It’s certainly an interesting and eventful hike, the scenery is beautiful, and the actors are good (some of it I couldn’t tell if it was scripted or ‘reality show’). I heard a rumor when the film was first released that Gujabidze was a professional mountain guide, not an actor, but I can’t find any corroborating information. Though this was his first film, he has also appeared in a 2015 Georgian film so he may have changed careers. This film will give you a good sense of Georgian “anecdotes” that just do not translate well. There was also a funny bit on swearing in Georgian and English, if you’re interested in picking up some colorful vocabulary. If you are looking for a fast-paced or plot-heavy movie, though, this isn’t for you. As for me, I did enjoy watching the film, but thought it was a bit long given the style and subject matter.

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