A car comes speeding towards us head on. I grab our driver’s shoulder from the backseat and scream, “Look out!” He swerves at the last minute to avoid a head on collision. “Put down that ‘friggin’ phone!” He shrugs as if it is no big deal. And it is not a big deal here on the roads of Georgia. This defines the common, harrowing method of the way most people drive. We love the country of Georgia, but do not want to die here. Although our driver speaks no English, he gets the message.
About six hours later, we arrive safe out in the boonies of Vardzia, Georgia, inland and close to the Turkish border. We look forward to climbing around the Medieval Cave City/Monastery in the cliffs of the Lesser Caucasus tomorrow morning. First, it is time to check-in to a slice of peaceful paradise.
Our cottage sits next to the raging Kura River that cuts through an organic farm. While the staff prepare home grown food, we sip a bottomless bottle of homemade wine from the comfort of our balcony. Fresh crisp air engulfs the scent of flowers and herbs from the garden below.
The view encompasses dramatic, lush mountains and valleys. Instead of sleeping surrounded by bright lights and the thumping sound of nightclubs in Batumi, we somber in the dark with relaxing ripples of a rushing river. Oh yeah, Babe!
We enter the caves at ten o’clock the next morning as soon as they open to the public and practically have the place to ourselves. Again, this culture does not awaken early, which works to our advantage.
Queen Tamar established this cave city in the 12th century. In the 13th century an earthquake reduced what used to house 50,000 people, to about 750 remaining rooms. Today, monks continue to inhabit a section of the caves.
The 13-story complex is full of small churches and wine cellars, more wine cellars than churches (good priorities). Tourists can buy tickets to climb around the uninhabited areas.
The Church of the Dormition, the most important part of the complex, contains murals and paintings on ceilings and walls preserved by the caves, as well as ongoing restoration.
About two hours later, busloads of tourists and school kids descend upon our peaceful, semiprivate show. Perfect timing, as the sun soaks us in sweat. Time to rehydrate with a cold beer in the shade along the river and its chill breeze before walking back to our retreat.
Tonight’s dinner consists of fresh trout from the river, along with Georgian staples of bread, cheese, cucumbers, and tomatoes grown on this organic-minded mini farm in the middle of paradise.
Could have stayed longer than two nights in this peaceful haven, but a six-hour, twisty mountain ride in a speeding, public transport “Marshruka” (minivan) shall bring us back to Tbilisi tomorrow.
Arriving back at the Penthouse Hotel in the heart of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city, the receptionist greets us as old friends. We started our adventure from this hotel one month ago.
Time to chill-out in a cliff-side restaurant dining on tongue, pkhali, and veal, along with one too many bottles of wine. Back at the hotel, our receptionist friend worked for hours on the phone to reduce the price of our room ($45US) charged by booking.com, to the regular, local price without our knowledge. We express inebriated gratefulness. The next morning, I tried to pay for the room. “You paid last night,” she laughs. “You guys were so drunk! You drink like Georgians!”
Imbibing the night before is not the best way to prepare for a twelve-hour round-trip tour up twisty mountain roads riding in a minivan the next morning. This venture winds along the Russian Military Highway, a major trade route through the Greater Caucasus that connect Russia to Georgia and Armenia. Full of trucks and tourist vehicles, and at least one queasy tourist.
I remain in Tbilisi to write this blog post, and buck-up for nine more hours of riding more twisty mountain roads enroute to Armenia the following morning. Am I getting too old for this? Marilynn certainly is not. “I can’t come to Georgia and not get to Kazbegi,” and off she goes.
She makes friends over shots of Chacha at lunch with a young couple from Lithuania, and another couple from France. One of the advantages of a tour comes in the form of interaction with people from all over the world. It is a joy to share new experiences with like-minded travelers.
The Anauri Fortress sits next to the Zhinvali reservoir and contains two 17th century churches.
This highway continues through more dramatic scenery while crossing the 7800ft (2379m) Javari pass before descending into the Tegi valley to Kazbegi, which is 7miles (11km) from Russia.
Mt. Kazbek, an extinct volcano, towers 16,400ft (5047m) over the small city of Kazbegi.
A 4.7mile (6km) jeep ride takes you up to the most photographed site in all of Georgia. Marilynn presents you with the 14th century Tsminda Sameba Church with Mt. Kazbek in the background. A matter of luck and patience to catch a glimpse of it in between constant clouds and mist.
On the drive back, a stop at the Friendship Monument, built in 1983, depicts a peaceful celebration of the bicentennial of the Treaty of Georgievsk, signed in 1783 between the Russian Empire and the Georgian Kingdom.
It overlooks Devil’s Valley and represents the ongoing friendship between Georgia and Russia. The tile mural represents both Georgian and Russian history.
“You would have been carsick for sure along this ride,” Marilynn says upon return. I celebrate my decision to take the day off.
One month in Georgia does not feel like long enough. Would love to hike the mountains in the fall colors. So many places to see in this world. So little time.
Thank you, Abundant Universe!