Archives for posts with tag: tourism

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.

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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…

It’s been a busy few months–a future post will shed some light as to why.  Likewise, July has been a rather eventful month in Georgia’s political arena: Eduard Shevardnadze passed away, Davit Narmania was elected mayor of Tbilisi, and the cabinet was reshuffled.  I’ve also made cameos on a few other blogs–my friend Julia came to Tbilisi, and I chatted with one of my former professors about life in the suburbs.

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.

at the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

at the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

This post is long-overdue, but when I returned from Easter weekend in Istanbul, I was distracted by all the drama in Georgia.  Now, of course, Istanbul has it’s own drama ongoing (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, catch up here or at any major news source).  Because of the protests in Istanbul, don’t follow my itinerary without doing some research and figuring out how the political situation will affect your travels.  Here’s the current update from the US State Department.  Now that I’ve said that, I talked to a friend who was in town as a tourist last week, and he said that the tourist attractions weren’t affected, and he found it interesting to watch the protests outside his hotel window and get the occasional whiff of tear gas–it certainly gives his stories of his long weekend in Istanbul a very different flavor than mine.

But, back to your postcard.  Meghan and I had both really wanted to go to Istanbul, and the long weekend off work for Orthodox Easter (which fell very late this year) gave us the perfect opportunity to hop on a plane and visit Turkey.  Because we were flying from Tbilisi to…well, anywhere, but in this case Istanbul, our flight left at the usual ridiculous 4 AM.  Meghan chose option A and opted for a nap before taking a cab to the airport; I chose option B and took the bus and pulled an airport all-nighter.  Needless to say, neither of us was particularly well-rested for our first day in Istanbul.  We didn’t even make it out of Ataturk Airport before we rejoiced in the spread of American businesses and indulged in some Starbucks.  (I’m not generally a fan of American cultural hegemony making street corners all over the world indistinguishable, but MAN was that chai tea latte amazing!).  Slightly invigorated by some caffeine, we headed into the city and found our way to Istanbul Hostel, where the staff took very good care of us in our slower-thinking-than-usual states (giving us an extra day of free breakfast–including more coffee).

We spent our first day in Istanbul just wandering around and getting our bearings.  We stumbled across the main sights quite quickly and saw the exteriors of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.  We wandered more through the Sultanahmet neighborhood, and found ourselves at the Grand Bazaar, where we had more caffeine, absorbed the sights, and got turned around.  Since we had exited the Bazaar nowhere near where we thought we had, we wound up exploring the Laleli neighborhood, which was quite an experience.  It’s the wholesale clothing district, so we kept going into shops where we weren’t allowed to buy anything.  Interestingly enough, the common language of the area (probably in addition to Turkish) is Russian.  I assume this is because this is where all the clothes for sale in the boutiques on the streets of Tbilisi and other former Soviet republics come from.  It was a very different side of Istanbul, and it felt like a glimpse into the inner workings of the Caucasus.  Eventually we got our bearings and made our way back to the hostel for an early night.

Golden Mosaic in the Hagia Sophia--sparkly!

Golden Mosaic in the Hagia Sophia–sparkly!

The next day was our big tourism day.  The Underground Cistern, the Hagia Sophia, and Topkapi Palace.  We started at the Underground Cistern, because travel guides recommended that that was the most efficient route to minimize time spent standing in line–I think other people have read the same suggestion, so I don’t know if it’s really such a great strategy right now.  That being said, the Underground Cistern is definitely worth a visit–it’s cool and dark and really quite impressive in its scope.  The line for the Hagia Sophia was quite overwhelming, and at first I was unimpressed “Oh, look, another old Orthodox Church, I’ve seen a million….WOW”.  The splendor is somewhat overshadowed by the crowds of tourists, but it really is a spectacular place.  The number of exclamations from visitors saying “Oh my God, it’s so beautiful” suggest that the architects’ goal is to this day being achieved.  (The Russian tourists were, however, incredibly obnoxious.  Our Russian skills came in handing pointing out to the новые русские that lines did, in fact, apply to them as well).

DSC_1859

Topkapi Palace–see what I mean about the tile?

We stopped by the Blue Mosque, but it was closed for prayers, so we proceeded on to lunch.  We chose a restaurant at random, and found ourselves in the Stone House Restaurant.  It was exactly what we were looking for: classic, simple Turkish food that was delicious.  As it turned out, the staff were Georgians (Unfortunately, I hadn’t miraculous developed the ability to understand Turkish: they were speaking Georgian).  Our new friends Zaza and Natia overwhelmed us with a combination of Turkish and Georgian hospitality, and we got lots of delicious extras with our meal.  We still had a busy afternoon of sightseeing, though, so we had to make our excuses and find our way to Topkapi Palace.  It lived up to its name and was certainly palatial.  Although I had read the descriptions in tour books, I was unprepared for just how extensive the museum and grounds are.  We didn’t even bother trying to see everything and felt quite fatigued from trying.  The additional 15 lira to see the harem was, in my opinion, worth it.  What impressed me most about the palace was not the jewels or the opulent living quarters, but the beautiful, beautiful tiles covering almost every surface in jewel tones and geometric and floral designs.  Very impressive.

The next day was a bit more relaxing, we started off with a visit to the Blue Mosque, which was (of course) incredibly beautiful.  Then we were horrible American tourists and went to the mall.  It was awesome.  I was able to replace some of my clothes that Georgia has killed, and I got some food souvenirs at the Carrefour (better quality and lower prices than at a candy shop near the tourist attractions. Pro Tip).  That evening we gathered together a group of friends from all over the world and various parts of our lives who all happened to be in Istanbul for the weekend (so great) and had dinner together.  It was fantastic to get together with people who’d never met before, but all had something in common and spend time together sort of like old friends.  We went to Galata Kiva, a restaurant specializing in “Modern Eastern Turkish Fusion” or something like that (the fancy menu is only available in the front portion of the restaurant) where I was able to mark Orthodox Easter with the traditional Georgian Easter dish of lamb with plums and tarragon (ჩაქაფული chakapuli), which is apparently also popular in Eastern Turkey.  Not that surprising, really, but still a nice surprise.  I also highly recommend the “eggplant dessert”.  It’s weird, but amazing.

The next morning we were off to the airport.  I woke up early, though, partially due to my nerves about flying, and partially because I still had a few things I wanted to do.  I savored a last Starbucks drink, changed some last money into lira to get me to the airport, and bought a scarf.  This was actually my favorite wander around Istanbul, though.  It was lovely to see the city when it was quiet and peaceful and empty of tourists.  It left a good final impression of the city (and I saw some kitties).

istanbul panorama

Overall, Istanbul is crowded and expensive and stressful.  And I loved it because it’s also welcoming, and beautiful and exciting.  Nonetheless, I was glad to arrive back “home” in Tbilisi.

 

Tbilisi at Dusk

It’s no secret that I’ve spent plenty of time in Tbilisi, but I haven’t written a post specifically about the city.  This post is devoted to things that are new to me– fairly major attractions that I didn’t feel were worth my time at first, so I come to them late in the game (I assume many others may feel the same way).  Here’s what I think:

Tbilisi Zoo:
The bar for the Tbilisi Zoo had been set very, very low, so I was delighted to find that I had a lovely evening there.  I was lucky enough to accompany my friends on a visit to the zoo led by their friend who works there, which made for an incredible visit.  The infrastructure of the zoo can’t compete with the slick American zoos I’ve visited, and seeing the animals in more cage-like enclosures was a bit sad (I have very conflicted feelings about the morality of zoos).  The zoo was far bigger than I thought, and the mixture of animals and amusement park attractions made it a big hit with the children visiting, and their high spirits were contagious.  I found the bird collections particularly interesting–who knew there were so many beautiful kinds of pheasants!  The real highlight of the trip, though, was watching my friends’ friend interact with the animals: he knew all their names and would call them to us (some of them even responded!).  It was really obvious that he cared very much about the animals, and that they loved him.  I had always thought hyenas were quite nasty (I blame The Lion King for this stereotype), but they were so sweet, and looked more like eager puppies just wanting to be pet than like ruthless killers.  (DISCLAIMER: Don’t try this at home!  He’s a highly-trained professional).  It was great to see another side of the zoo, and to see the relationships between the animals and the staff.  It was a lovely trip.

Verdict: Worth a visit, particularly if you have an “in” but don’t expect it to be like the best American zoos (which are the ones I grew up around).  On the flip side, it is far less expensive than an American zoo.  Not one of the top sights of the city, but certainly not a waste of time.

Mtatsminda Park:
It’s funny that I never made it up here before, because it’s one of the most obvious attractions in the city: the ferris wheel and TV tower are visible from almost everywhere.  I finally heard from a friend of a friend how to get there not that long ago and Richard. and his girlfriend really wanted to  explore, so I finally made the journey.  We made it there (mostly) on foot: we took the new cable car from Europe Park up to the Narikala Fortress (I was a bit suspicious of the cable car, but it was a lovely ride).  From the cable car, walk along the ridge towards Mother Georgia (in the direction of Mtatsminda).  Walk under Ivanishvili’s mansion and down the road a bit.  On the left-hand side of the road is a staircase signed “Mtatsminda Park:”  follow those stairs up. Keep following those stairs up.  They’re quite well-maintained, and often nicely shaded.   There are some benches and mini-playgrounds along the path, but not many other walkers.  The views on the walk up are stunning, and make it worth the exertion.  The amusement park at the top isn’t particularly special, but it offers a nice perspective on the city and would be great fun for kids.  We rode the ferris wheel, which didn’t provide the views we hoped, but was still pretty cool.  We returned down the mountain via city bus 90, which runs both directions–a more logical route might be to take the bus up and walk down…

Verdict: Worth it primarily for the views and the khachapuri-counteracting potential.  Bring water!

Sameba Cathedral

I didn’t actually see the interior of the cathedral since it was hot out and I was therefore not dressed appropriately for going inside.   My visit was only to the grounds and looking at the exterior.  It was interesting to see Sameba, because it really looks like most of the Georgian churches I’ve seen, but with one major difference: it’s brand-new (and paid for by Ivanishvili).  It’s interesting to look at Sameba and imagine what some of the old churches now in ruins might have looked like in the glory days, and to see the consistent elements of Georgian religious architecture.  That said, though, it isn’t really THAT different.

Verdict: If you don’t have the opportunity to see some of the iconic churches outside of Tbilisi, certainly stop by.  If you’re particularly interested in Georgian churches, definitely go.  If you’ve seen lots of churches in Georgia, you aren’t missing out on too much without this one.

With these new sites, though, I still recommend, first and foremost, a wander around downtown–Rustaveli and Old Town and a visit to Dry Bridge Market as the best places to visit as a tourist in Tbilisi.

This is an old video, but a good one.  Doesn’t it just make you want to come and visit ჩემო თბილის ქალაქო (Chemo Tbilis Kalako My Tbilisi City)

I mentioned that I’ve been busy lately with friends coming and going.  Well, one of those friends would like to share his thoughts on his trip to Georgia with you.  Richard lives in Ukraine, and came to Georgia in early August.  If you’re interested in hearing more from him, check out his blog at http://dcinthedonbass.blogspot.com/  I hope you enjoy his post!  -Em

“Several months ago, my girlfriend and I were looking at Em’s post about Kazbegi and thinking to ourselves, “We have to see this.” Fortunately, we both were living in Ukraine, so getting there was relatively easy, and we were able to come for vacation this August.

In the course of 11 days, we saw many different parts of the country–starting with the beaches in Batumi, we made our way to Borjomi, Kazbegi and finally Tbilisi. We shamelessly stole ideas of where to go from Em’s blog. One guest house owner asked us which guide book we were using, and we had to admit we didn’t have one. Everything we knew, we’d gotten from this site.

Overall, I was impressed with the incredible effort Georgia has made to move beyond its past and become a more comfortable place to live and visit. When my flight arrived at 3 a.m., I was greeted at the airport by children in traditional costumes offering baclava and water. At 3 a.m.! Everywhere I looked in Batumi, I saw evidence of efforts to make the city more livable, from the newly-installed bike paths and bike-sharing system (similar to the ones in Paris and Washington, DC) to signs everywhere in English. Of course, the city was also under heavy construction, and seems to be vaulting towards a future as an extremely expensive enclave for the wealthy. But for my money (limited as it is as a Peace Corps Volunteer), Batumi was an unbeatable experience; the sun and the waves were still free, and supremely relaxing.

Here are some other highlights from our trip:

-Swimming in a natural hot spring in Borjomi and bottling our own spring water.

-Being blown away by natural beauty in Kazbegi. I couldn’t help a twinge of pity for the poor village folk who live there and have to climb a mountain every Sunday to go to church, but for a single visit it was great.

-Enjoying the glorious gastronomic opportunities Tbilisi has to offer, with Em as our guide. Of course we had plenty of traditional Georgian food, but also tried everything from curry to tacos to Lebanese food.

-Finding our way to the Ferris wheel overlooking the capital. The view from up there is fantastic, and once you know the right bus to take (#90), relatively easy to get to. We actually found there was a series of stairways leading up there as well, which in the summer with a good-sized bottle of water and a camera can be a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

One final impression Georgia left with me that was quite profound: the police. I can’t describe what a pleasant relief it was to spend some time in a place where serious measures are being taken against corruption, even if they are still perhaps not perfect. Coming from Ukraine, where foreigners (and, well, everyone) are routinely hassled by the police, this was a breath of fresh air. Aside from the fancy police stations with their glass exteriors (a literal take on the “transparency” notion), I marveled at other such efforts as a corruption survey issued to foreigners leaving the country, asking for details of any bribes requested during one’s stay. Grace notes such as this left me thinking Georgia is on the way up in the world, and certainly someplace I want to come again.

Maybe I’ll even try to learn that crazy alphabet.”