Posts Tagged ‘georgia’

Georgia On My Mind

No, not Georgia the state (named after King George II), but, once again,

St. George, killing a dragon, in Tbilisi

Georgia the country (named after St. George). And about St. George –  I’m still bemused by my discovery (in Georgia) that he was a Roman soldier martyred by the Emperor Diocletian and that early statues showed him killing the emperor. Apparently, the dragon he’s seen killing these days was a later invention.

Although I crossed the border from Georgia to Armenia back on September 30th, I’ve been thinking about the country quite a lot recently, for two reasons.

  • Even people who didn’t follow the Olympics probably heard about the death of the Georgian luger right before the Opening Ceremony (although I know at least one person who totally missed it). The tragic and apparently completely avoidable death was so sad, but it did get Georgia a great deal of publicity. I checked, and the village he came from, Bakuriani, is just 30 kms from Borjomi, my base for visiting the cave city of Vardzia. Lonely Planet says that it’s one of just two main ski resorts in Georgia, and maybe more people will visit now – the country can use all the tourist income it can get. The mountains really are worth seeing.
  • But even before the Olympics, I had been rereading my journal for Georgia, as preparation for taping an interview for a podcast. So now you can hear me, instead of just reading me, here:

Caucasus mountains near Telavi

Since my eye problems kept me from getting up to the high mountains in Georgia, I’m still hoping to revisit. I’ll just make sure to go in the summer rather than autumn, in the hope of better weather.

I’ve been getting some other exposure lately besides Amateur Traveler – I also did an interview for Nomadic Chick’s blog. She’s getting ready to quit her job and head out on a round-the-world trip. And I just got listed on travelblogsites.com. Both of those were the result of spending time on Twitter.

Read Full Post »

Georgia Wrap

1 December, 2009: I’ve just finished organizing the photos from Georgia – at kwilhelm.smugmug.com/Travel/Caucasus-and-Middle-East-2009 – and thought I’d post some final thoughts on Georgia before moving on to Armenia.

It’s clear that economically, this country’s not doing so well, and it didn’t take a “Polish Aid” sign at a construction site to tell me that. While the main roads are in good shape, secondary roads and sidewalks are definitely not. Then there are the taxi drivers in the countryside, coasting whenever they can to save gas, and an electricity supply often too weak to charge my Nokia n800. Transport (by marshrutka) and food (khachapuri – cheese pie – and khinkali – meat dumplings) can be unbelievably cheap. But the people, friendly and energetic, struck me as entrepreneurial survivors, so I hope things will improve.

Renovation underway at Nekresi

It’s also a very old, proud, country, with a history going back to the dawn of agriculture and including a prosperous period as Colchis (think Jason’s Golden Fleece). Just the second nation to embrace Christianity, in the early fourth century, its Christian heritage has survived occupation by the Muslim Ottomans as well as the atheistic Soviets, although the church buildings suffered badly under the Soviets. The religious revival includes a massive new cathedral in Tbilisi, and renovation at many churches in the countryside.

I visited in the second half of September, and (as a look at my photos will attest) suffered a shortage of sunshine. This could be a good destination in July and August, when much of Europe is overrun with tourists. I saw only one small, European, tour group (at Vardzia), and encountered a scattering of European backpackers and rather more Israelis (there’s a direct flight from Tel Aviv to Tbilisi), so this is a good place for people looking to get off the main tourist trail. No Western chains in evidence either, aside from a few hotels.

The Zhinvali Reservoir near Ananuri

Georgia is a great budget destination, with a network of homestays and the afore-mentioned cheap food and transport. I loved the scenery, and I didn’t even get up into the higher mountains. Having discovered that access to Svaneti (in the northwest), and Tusheti (in the northeast) is easier than Lonely Planet suggests, I’d really like to come back and spend time in the north.

Options for high-end travelers are limited. There are a couple of Marriotts and a Radisson in Tbilisi, and Sheraton is building in Tbilisi and Batumi, but otherwise the best option outside Tbilisi is the Dzveli Batumi chain. Mid-range people can do a bit better, but if you’re headed for the mountains, there’s not much besides homestays.

I used Lonely Planet, and aside from a map error in Kutaisi, found it worked well. I read the Bradt guide before I left, but unless you plan to drive yourself to every church in the country, you’re better off with Lonely Planet. I took a quick look at an Odyssey guide while I was in Tbilisi, and thought it would be worth checking out for sightseeing information.

Bottom line? Georgia is on my “would revisit” list, for the mountains, but not my “must revisit” list.

Read Full Post »

Last Day in Georgia

September 29, 2009:  The 10:00 marshrutka from Borjomi to Tbilisi left almost empty, and I snagged my preferred seat behind the driver. On the way he bought three crates of tomatoes from a roadside stall, leaving the empty crates that had been stashed in the back of the van. It took three tries before he found a price he liked.

The taxi touts at the Tbilisi bus station were totally baffled by the hotel card I showed for the Villa Mtiebi, and even the guy who finally agreed to drive me didn’t get too close because of construction – I walked the last block. My room turned out to have dim lights and feeble towels and no sink stopper (always travel with a universal sink stopper!) but the bed was comfortable.

I spent my last day in Georgia eating, drinking, and failing to figure out how to efficiently upload photos to smugmug using my n800. Lunch consisted of tough chicken in a nicely spicy sauce. No doubt a free range chicken, it had joints I didn’t recognize – and Caucasian chickens don’t have those over-developed breasts you get on American birds. Then I settled in at a coffee shop, Encore, on Rustaveli that offered not only good coffee and pastries, but seats by the windows that provided great indoor people-watching.

I had a little trouble with dinner: Sans Souci had closed, the old town branch of Shemoikhede Genatsvale was full, and I wound up back on the main tourist street, eating mushroom risotto and chicken livers at Nineteen. But the food and wine were good.

Read Full Post »

A Surprising Trip South

With Georgia’s northern mountains, the Caucasus range, barred to me, I decided to check out the Lesser Caucasus, to the south, staying in Borjomi. The Israeli couple I met in Telavi had gone straight through Tbilisi and on to Borjomi and reported via cell phone that they had enjoyed warm sunshine. I had had to stop in Tbilisi to check on my blood test, so was a couple of days behind, and I left  on a cold, wet day, wondering why my luck with weather had been so bad this trip.

The cave city at Vardzia

Fortunately, I realized that my marshrutka was going on to Akhaltsike in time to get off in the middle of Borjomi. Then I took a taxi a few yards to my hotel! (No map in Lonely Planet, and it was raining too hard for me to want to explore.) The gruff older woman and friendlier middle-aged one running the Hotel Borjomi spoke essentially no English, but we managed to communicate. I took the cheaper 70 GEL room upstairs and was able to get a much-needed portable heater, although I was told to turn it off while I slept.

The town would be pleasant enough on a sunnier day, surrounded by forested mountains and built either side of a wide river spanned by several bridges. The T.I. people were helpful, giving me recommendations for dinner and directions to a well-heated Internet Cafe close by. The shashlyk place the T.I. recommended looked after me well: a pretty good jug wine, a nicely presented spread of cucumber, tomato, cheese and bread, and a sizzling dish of meat with onions and pomegranate seeds. But, as so often on this trip, the meat was tough.

My main objective here was a visit to the cave city of Vardzia, and the day was certainly memorable. I had arranged a car and driver (both elderly) through my hotel, and we set off on another rainy morning. About 15 minutes into the trip, passing a boulder-strewn hillside, one of the boulders got wanderlust and rolled down the slope straight for us! The driver swerved and we survived unscathed, but the omens weren’t good.

On the way up to Vardzia

We followed a river through more forested mountains to Akhaltsike, and then turned off to the south-east through moorland on a variable road  – some new, some deteriorating, some more pothole than road. About 90 minutes into a two hour trip, the driver pointed at a car coming towards us and said what sounded like “snake”. A few cars, and “snakes”, later, I realized he was talking about snow. Yes, it was still September, it had been sunny two days earlier, but now I encountered quite heavy snow!  I must say that the mountains looked pretty with their white coating, but I was a bit worried about the trip back if it kept up. Luckily, the snow turned back to rain before we got to Vardzia, and had melted before we returned, but I was very glad of the sweater, cardigan and scarf I had originally brought for my projected night in the desert, and would really have liked a pair of gloves for the metal handrails.

Possibly the cold and wet had something to do with my reaction to Vardzia, but if you’ve seen the caves at Ellora and Ajanta in India, Vardzia will be a big disappointment. Plenty of caves, but not much decoration, and lots of slippery stairs. However, the setting was lovely.

On the way back we had a flat tire.

Read Full Post »

Back to Tbilisi

It occurs to me that I should add dates to the posts from this trip, since they are all after the fact! This one covers 25-27 Sep. I made it home Sunday 15 Nov, so I should be posting a bit more often now.

The Kartli (www.hotel-kartli.com) in Tbilisi gave me a different room this time, a somewhat smaller twin with a working TV. I had to switch beds during the night, as the mattress springs on the first dug into me, but the second was comfy enough. The Kartli could not give me a room for my last night in Georgia, though, and I revisited the old town to take a look at the Villa Mtiebi (www.hotelmtiebi.ge/welcome.htm), which I thought might be a worthwhile splurge. Between the attractively renovated old house, and the charming, light-filled atrium, it was an easy sell.

But first I revisited my ophthalmologist Marina for a discussion of my blood test. She checked my retina again – still fine – and gave me a prescription for a blood thinner. (After exchanging emails with my home doctor, I decided not to fill it.)


Although Kazbegi was still forbidden (and forbiddingly cold, according to reports), I did manage to travel the Georgian Military Highway as far as Ananuri. I loved the trip – Ananuri now sits above a lovely lake, Zhinvali, which reflects the surrounding mountains. While the lake is actually a man-made reservoir, it totally seems to belong (unlike  Lake Powell, incongruously turquoise in a land of dry red rock.) Good carving decorated the outside of the churches, and inside, for once, I bought and lit a candle before one of the icons. So, good churches and good views, but nowhere to get coffee!

Back in Tbilisi, I visited the Botanical Gardens, short on labels but long on

Mother Georgia

peace – at least until I caught up with a boisterous school group. Following them up a final steep slope, I came out beside the iconic aluminum statue of Mother Georgia (Kartlis Deda), sword in one hand and wine-cup in the other. I didn’t spend too long enjoying the excellent views, as a brisk wind threatened to blow me over.

On the opposite hill on the other side of the river, I visited the huge new Holy Trinity Cathedral, a show place for traditional Georgian craftsmanship and religion. Outside, I admired the stone carving: inside I found traditionally painted icons in traditional silver frames. A service was in progress, and among the scattering of worshippers I noticed one young man on his knees – but talking into his cell phone! A little bevy of junior clerics, in blue, were also having a quiet chat.

After I finished reserving my room at Villa Mtiebi, I ventured further into the renovated section of the old town, and ate on touristy Rue Chardin, at the Telavi Winery restaurant. Mushroom soup and tuna salad were accompanied by a very drinkable Tsinandali white wine, aged in oak, that displayed good balance and character. Unfortunately, the tuna salad didn’t go down quite as well.

That evening I asked my hotel for a recommendation for a local restaurant with reasonable prices, and found myself eating in a basement among a lot of happy groups of guys. The food was fine – way too much khachapuri, and a sizzling dish of meat with interesting seasoning. (I don’t remember the name, but it’s on Dadiani, just down from Teremok, a Lonely Planet listing whose blinis didn’t live up to my expectations – I have to go back to Ukraine!)

Read Full Post »

A Tourist in Tbilisi

The bus ride from Kutaisi to Tbilisi took me through some nice mountainous scenery, and, at one point, very close to the border with South Ossetia. I could see no sign of the border, but I did note one very new-looking array of identical little houses in neat rows – perhaps military housing? As so often, to get a decent taxi fare I had to walk out of the bus station and hail a taxi from the street – and then navigate us from the Lonely Planet map.

Tbilisi's huge new Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity) Cathedral

My hotel, the Kartli, made a welcome contrast to the homestay – no charm, but clean and comfortable with helpful staff and an attached pizzeria/restaurant with a long menu of good food that included salads. Unfortunately, I couldn’t use the free wi-fi, as the server didn’t recognize the security code as sent from my n800. I did find a cell-phone office (at least I think MagTI was a cell-phone office) on Rustaveli with a lot of Apple computers for 1 GEL/hour. I still hated the Apple keyboards, but the price was right.

Tbilisi, the bad news:

  • As in the rest of Georgia, the sidewalks were traps for the unwary. Some stretches, in front of a Lufthansa office, for example, were smooth tile, but most were uneven, varying from one shop to the next, showing three or four different repairs, and featuring abrupt changes in level. Sometimes a section had been converted to garage access and sloped steeply up or down to the road. At night I really needed my torch!
  • The old town did not meet my expectations, raised by Lonely Planet’s description. One part was just old – crumbling plaster, peeling paint and perilously perched balconies, mixed with a few nicely renovated properties, and others completely gutted. Another section, just a couple of streets, had been redone as tourist central, with cafes and shops.
  • The museum scene was only slightly better than that in Batumi. The docent leading me round the Treasury in the Fine Arts Museum chose to plant herself in front of an undistinguished piece of wooden sculpture to hold forth at length about the historic extent of Georgia – her claim that it once included Egypt strained credulity. She did a little better with South Ossetia – the  crest of the Caucasus making a much more likely border than the plains. The Treasury (but not the rest of the museum) had some nice pieces, although apparently the Russians removed some of the best jewels and icons in the 19th century. I was fascinated to learn that originally statues of St. George showed him killing a man, not a dragon – the Emperor Diocletian, responsible for his martyrdom. (And the earliest dragons were multi-colored.)

Freedom Square

Tbilisi, the good news:

  • Although it made my “would-revisit” rather than my “must-revisit” list, I enjoyed Tbilisi’s energy, busy streets, and varied buildings. Whether Georgia is in Europe or Asia may be debatable on geographic grounds, but for me it felt decidedly European with its open, friendly and entrepreneurial people.
  • The setting, along both banks of the Mtkvari river, was attractive, even though busy roads took up most of the riverside space. While I thought the “old town” disappointing, I found a number of attractive buildings along the main streets to admire. A lot of new building was going on, though, with many glass and concrete monsters planned.
  • I ate and drank well, in both Georgian and “western” outfits. I especially enjoyed the walnut sauce that sometimes accompanied the ubiquitous tomato and cucumber salad, and the spicy sauce that sparked up the BBQ. (But avoid the Marriott on Freedom Square, where, after a throughly pedestrian and overpriced meal my credit card was charged in dollars instead of lari!)
  • I loved the flamboyant, golden St. George (killing a dragon) high on a column in the middle of Freedom Square, and the lights on the radio tower shining above the town at night.

Jvari church, outside Mtskheta

I visited Mtskheta from Tbilisi (metro to the bus station: .50 GEL, marshrutka: 1 GEL) and found a helpful, English-speaking woman in the T.I. across from the impressive cathedral. (She was eager to tell me about meeting the author of the Lonely Planet guide.) A service was in progress around the cathedral’s centerpiece – a square pillar with Christ’s robe supposedly buried beneath. I took a taxi to a monastery out in the country – a lovely drive over a gravel road – although the caves above the church were inaccessible. The monastery appeared self-supporting, with a vegetable garden and a row of beehives.

I did not make an equivalent pilgrimage to Gori, Stalin’s birthplace.

Read Full Post »

Quick Stop in Kutaisi

I like to travel by train where possible (more room, generally speaking, and on board toilets, although those are sometimes UNspeakable). So my first plan was to take the night train from Batumi to Tbilisi. But that would mean missing a lot of scenery, the country’s second city, dating in various incarnations back 4,000 years, and a couple of dramatically-sited monasteries. Instead I would spend one night in Kutaisi in a well-reviewed homestay.

The river bank in Kutaisi

The taxi from Dzveli Batumi delivered me not just to the bus station, but to the conductor of the correct marshrutka, who stowed my pack and pointed out the ticket office. I switched seats after the sun finally came out, which was as soon as we left Batumi. We headed north, with the sea to the left and mountains to the right,until we could turn east through the central, agricultural, plain.

I found the house plans interesting, and typical of the country: the working part was on the ground floor, with the next story either built out, or with a verandah, and reached by outside stairs. Clearly, the visitors’ section was upstairs, In homestays the family lives downstairs and guests upstairs.

The main church at Gelati

I took a taxi to my homestay, and when I saw how far I would have had to trek, up a steep path, if I had followed Lonely Planet’s directions, I felt the “splurge” entirely justified. A lavishly bearded Dutchman arrived shortly after I did, and had clearly not enjoyed the walk. Homestays may not be especially comfortable (at this one the toilet was outside, down the stairs, and round two corners, and the far from “sparkling” shower room outside and round one corner) but they are great for meeting other travelers. The Dutchman instantly agreed to share a taxi with me for the afternoon. After a remarkably cheap lunch (cheese pie for two and water for one for 5 GEL) and a quick bargain with a driver, we were on our way to Motsameta and Gelati.

The scenery – forested mountains – outshone the church. I noticed that the water pipe for priest’s house seemed to start in the graveyard, and I also noticed a struggling sheep being dragged towards the church – animal sacrifice has not completely died out in these parts. The much bigger complex at Gelati, while less defensible, still perched well up a wooded hillside. David the Builder, perhaps Georgia’s most successful monarch, was buried here, and President Saakashvili chose it for his inauguration.

Aside from great locations, Georgian churches are also distinguished by cruciform design, with a central round or polygonal tower, capped by a “dunce’s cap” roof and pierced by tall, thin windows, making the inside much lighter than superficially-similar Armenian churches.

View of Kutaisi from outside Bagrati Cathedral

Gas is clearly a valuable commodity here. After we agreed the price with our driver and got in, our first stop was for gas, and on the way back to Kutaisi, we coasted wherever possible. After the ride I found an ATM, and a cafe in a central park, before totally failing to find the synagogues mentioned in LP – the map being flat wrong. I trekked up the afore-mentioned steep slope towards the homestay, stopping off at the town’s 11th century Bagrati Cathedral, only to find it completely off limits and undergoing extensive renovation. The castle cum palace next door had survived 11 centuries, but Russian bombardment (against the Turks) in 1769 reduced it to a state of complete ruin from which no renovation was possible.

Dinner at the homestay, like the bathroom, did not live up to to expectations raised by the reviews, being long on potato and short on protein, and not especially tasty. I slept well, though.

Read Full Post »

Battered Batumi

Despite arriving at the airport and checking in with plenty of time to spare, I

Batumi's Medea and the Golden Fleece

almost missed the Batumi flight. When the boarding call didn’t show up when expected, I noticed a very delayed United flight to the U.S.was using the same gate, and figured we would also be delayed. I had forgotten that Istanbul airport tends to employ buses rather than jet ways, and that boarding closed 15 minutes before scheduled take-off. Fortunately, I checked in time, and just made it along two walkways and through a secondary screening onto the last bus. Ten minutes later I boarded a crowded plane – I think many passegers were going to Hopi in Turkey – they would be put on a bus back across the border.

Then I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted with a beaming smile and a hearty “Welcome to Georgia” from the immigration officer. The taxi tout waiting beyond Customs was a more expected sight. This time I remembered to ask the ATM for an uneven number of lari (or GEL) and I had previously asked my prospective B&B how much to pay for the taxi, so I was prepared. I had to show the tout actual cash before we could agree on a price – but I have to say that the immigration officer turned out to be much more typical of Georgia.

After the Hotel Ritsa ignored my emails, and the Rcheuli Villa wanted 90

A downtown Batumi street

euro, I had picked the Dzveli Batumi, which was in the old town, and my driver had a really hard time reaching it. The town was installing water mains in already messed up roads, and walking, never mind driving, required extreme care. Mud and stones seemed the major components, puddles were pools, and the potholes could swallow a person.

Since it rained almost the entire time I stayed in Batumi, I had many opportunities to watch the roads turn to rivers and then back to roads. The main ones were somewhat better, but Lonely Planet’s claim that “strolling around the leafy, low-rise central streets is a real pleasure” is way off. It’s more like walking an obstacle course, with a twisted ankle or soaked feet as the booby prize. And off the main drag a torch is a real necessity after dark. Since many intersections had heavy-duty metal “bridges” spanning the first couple of feet between sidewalk and road, I can’t help feeling that the LP author may have read too many Tourist Information office brochures. I had this feeling several times in Georgia…

A "street bridge"

Despite my email confirming the reservation, my B&B didn’t seem to be expecting me, but took me up to a room anyway. The sheets, towels and TP arrived shortly afterwards. I had to make my own bed, but this seemed common in homestays and guesthouses in Georgia. I didn’t make it completely the first night, as the duvet cover was damp – I used my silk sleep sack instead. The room came with AC (needed to cut the humidity) and an attached bath, and only cost 30 euro with breakfast, so no complaints. Although the English-speaking owner wasn’t around much, one of the kids spoke some English. Like virtually all the Georgians I encountered, he was eager to help.

Again, the “lively cafes and restaurants” promised by LP were nowhere in evidence. Maybe they had closed for the season? I did find the Kafe Literaturuli a nice place to hang out, and the Privet iz Batuma served very good kachapuri – Georgia’s signature cheese pie – much better than it sounds. In general, Georgians seem to eat out in groups, often just men, so a solo female diner is a bit of rarity.

Read Full Post »

The trip I most want to make is to follow the Silk Road through Central Asia, but it didn’t seem that this was the year. I got back from a month in France in May, and I didn’t feel that I had time to organize the visas and transport needed for a trip starting in Istanbul and finishing somewhere in the Himalayas, and leaving in August or September. So, having visited the eastern end in 2001, I decided to visit the western end this year, then next year maybe I could do the middle.

So Plan A was Eastern Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Iran.  But further research suggested I needed a Plan B.

  1. Turkey. I would start the trip in September, but this year Ramadan runs roughly from 22 August – 20 September. For that month, observant Muslims let nothing pass their lips from sunup to sundown. I have borderline hypoglycemia, and therefore have to eat lunch, but I wasn’t sure that I would find restaurants and cafes open during the day in the more conservative and less-traveled east. I also wondered about the availability of transport.
  2. Azerbaijan. Since the US started charging high prices for visas, other countries have reciprocated for people traveling on US passports. I was willing to pay the $131 visa fee (55 GBP for Brits), but then I learned that Azerbaijan had added a requirement for a Letter of Invitation (popular among former Soviet republics), which would run me at least another $75. Add in the cost of Fed Ex’ing my passport to Washington and back, and even if I didn’t use a visa service I was looking at well over $200 and it just didn’t seem worth the cost. Maybe the Azerbaijanis just don’t want tourists around – the Washington embassy website now says: “Due to technical reasons the Consular Section will temporarily work 2 days a week: on Mondays and Thursdays from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.”
  3. Iran. I waited until after the June election to apply for an Iranian visa, thinking that things might well be looser then. Well, we all know what happened instead. Based on posts on Lonely Planet’s Thorntree it seems that right now I can’t get a visa for either my US or UK passport. Rather than plan the trip and then regroup at the last minute when my application was refused, I reluctantly dropped Iran, too.

Well, the Silk Road was never a single rope, more a loose skein with threads slipping off in all directions. True, one route ran to Baku in Azerbaijan, another through Tabriz and on into Turkey. But further south goods were traded through Aleppo to Antioch, and via Damascus to Tyre. I still wanted to visit the Caucasus, but instead of Iran I’d make my first visit to the Middle East.

Plan B therefore was Georgia, Armenia, Eastern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. But I couldn’t work up great enthusiasm for the trek across Eastern Turkey, which would involve a lot of time on buses, not enough places worth a three night stop, and too much time added to the trip if I didn’t want to turn it into a bus marathon. Luckily, I learned that there’s a twice weekly flight from Yerevan to Aleppo.

Plan C:

  • Fly from RDU to New York on September 10th, staying for three nights. I’ll be visiting the city for longer than it takes to change planes for the very first time.
  • Fly New York to Istanbul to Batumi – Turkish Airlines say they will put me up in an airport hotel in Istanbul as I can’t make the connection to Batumi the day I arrive.
  • Roughly four weeks going overland through Georgia and Armenia, ending in Yerevan.
  • Flight to Aleppo on October 11th.
  • Roughly four weeks going overland through Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
  • Flight from Amman to Istanbul for three nights.
  • Flight to New York for another three nights.
  • Fly back to RDU November 15th.

Let’s hope there won’t be a need for a Plan D. I am keeping an eye on the Georgia-Russia situation. Worst case I can fly Batumi-Yerevan instead of going overland.

Read Full Post »