Tbilisi, Kazbegi, Mstkhali, Gori, Vardzia, Upper Svaneti
Back in Georgia, it had much more a resemblance with the Armenian landscape and we very much enjoyed the drive to Tbilisi passing the mountain range with its volcanoes, lakes and forests. We even saw three foxes cross just before our truck.
When we arrived in Tbilisi the temperature was close to forty degrees Celsius and we had a good but sweaty visit of the open-air ethnography museum showcasing several original traditional wooden houses. To cool down, we enjoyed a wine and cheese tasting at ‘8000 Vintages’ before heading for our camp spot on the mountain next to lake Lisa. Of course we could not leave before have tried the local grappa named; ‘chacha’.
The next morning, just before breaking up, we are greeted with a friendly ‘goedemorgen’. We had a small chat with this friendly Dutchman walking his dog Beau. After we explained our trip, he mentioned that he had been working in Iran before and was not in Tbilisi for some years. When we mentioned we were going to the wine a food festival at the open-air museum tonight, he mentioned that he was going to the theatre to see the Dutch ballet perform. Like he had already three times this week... Although he was vague about his work, we did get the impression that we had just met our ambassador in Georgia. As soon as we had mobile signal again, Judith went on the internet to get a confirmation.
Tsminda Sameba Church in Kazbegi.
Today we drove to Kazbegi (and back) with stops at the Anara monastery and driving the Jvari Pass. Our aim was to visit the Tsminda Sameba Church high in the mountains. The monastery can be reached in three ways; walking, on horse back or with your 4x4… We took up the challenge and went up by car. We were not alone driving up. It turned out there was a fourth way to get to the monastery; taken a ride (for a fee) with one of the local ‘taxi’s’. The single lane track had been heavily used and also in the rain. At places, the road had deep tracks making the trip one of the toughest 4x4 tracks we had done thus far. The fact that it was single lane and the middle of high season, made especially interesting at times.
When we were safely back down, we decided to have lunch at the Rooms hotel, a tip of our ambassador. This former Soviet resort had been turned into a luxury hotel and has stunning views over the white-capped mountains and the monastery in front. If we had not planned to visit the Natural Wine and Food festival in the open-air museum with Berry and Jenna (and servicing the car), we would probably have checked into the hotel... it was really amazing.
Back in Tbilisi, we were right on time for the opening of the festival and we waited for Berry and Jenna to join us. We had a great evening tasting the different Georgian wines and specialties. Afterwards, we went back to our spot in the forest next to lake Lisa.
Servicing the car in Tbilisi, Mstkhali, Gori and Bakuriani
The next morning we are (too) early at the Toyota garage. Where in most countries the garages are open at or even before 8:00, in Tbilisi, the mechanics start at 9:30… After some discussion, they did start on our truck at 9:00 and about 45 minutes later, we were on the road again after a fast check and most importantly an oil change.
Before we drive westward, we planned to visit the Javri Monastry, the Mstkhali Cathedral and the old fortress at Amezi that can be reached by a small 4x4 track only. When we drive back from the church, we noticed the light of thr oil level signal went on… Back at the dealer they started by cleaning the control unit as they did not believe it is the fact that too much oil was put in the car. After cleaning, unfortunately the problem is not solved and they start looking at the wiring of the control unit… With Wilfred in the car on the bridge, several checks are done and finally, after about 30 minutes, the light stays off and we can continue our route towards Gori; Stalin’s place of birth.
We had been informed that the museum entry price was off the chart expensive, but his train carriage and his house of birth were accessible free of charge. The moment we get to the house, the wagon is still closed, however when we came back the train carriage was open and we could go through it.
From Gori, we drive towards the mountain village of Bakuriani via Bojorum (where we filled up the water tank with a ‘salty, light bubbly’ mineral water) and stayed in hotel where we could also make use of the washing machine.
Vardzia, Kutaisi and Upper Svaneti
From there, we drove to Vardzia via the beautiful scenic drive to see ‘Georgia’s Cappadocia. Just before the crossing towards town, we passed a stronghold that appeared to have been a major monastery or fort at the time. In Vardzia, we visited the cave houses and churches and were truly amazed by the escape route at the back of the cathedral.
After lunch, we drove towards Kutaisi and the prehistoric park and its cave (which we did not visit as the tour had just left and we did not want to wait for an hour). We visited the Bagrati cathedral. agrati Cathedral was built in the early years of the 11th century, during the reign of King Bagrat III, due to which it was called "Bagrati", i.e., Bagrat’s cathedral. In 1692, it was devastated in an explosion by Ottoman troops who had invaded the Kingdom if Imereti. The incident caused the cupola and ceiling to collapse.
After that we continued our route towards Upper Svaneti towards Mestia. Initially, we started the 4x4 track from the Prometheus cave, however the road was blocked by a river with a walking bridge and the rain in the area of the past days had made the road challenging enough already (we had to use low gear to turn the car in a mud pool). Later a local informed us that the road did continue, if we would take the left road instead of the old right road, but we decided to follow the tarmac road towards Tskhunkuri until it became a 4x4 track again. Halfway to Mestia, we decided to set up camp next to the roaring river that was pushing the rainwater and rocks down the mountain with force. Every now and then, we heard the rocks crash into each other, like a thunderstorm.
After a goodnight sleep, we continued to Upper Svaneti and its famous towers, especially in Mestia and the frontier villages, such as Ushguli and Latali. These towers usually have from three to five storeys and the thickness of the walls decreases closer to the top. Nowhere in the world is there an analogue of these unique defensive structures of the early Middle Ages epoch. Historically the existence of the towers is explained by the necessity of protection against enemy and natural disasters. Therefore each house had a similar tower, which served for the families as a refuge in case of war. Alarm signalization was the other function of Svan towers. They were used as sentry posts. In case of approaching danger a fire was lit on the main tower. As soon as this flame was noticed on the nearest tower they lit a fire there as well. This process was repeated on and on until the entire gorge was instantly ready to fight. The youngest one is at least two hundred years old. Many of the tower-houses have disappeared or are collapsing into ruins nowadays.
Around 11:00, we reached Mestia and after a coffee stop, we continued down hill again towards Poti. Finding a place to sleep turned out to be more of a challenge than expected, on our map it was a huge green area, but in reality houses where everywhere. After an hour so we found a spot in a meadow where we slept and were waken up by the bells of the cows early the next morning.
Crossing the border
When we woke up, there was rain in the air and by the time we arrived in Batumi it is poring. Batumi is clearly not our type of city… It is all about the beach (which means: if it rains everyone is pissed and bored, there is a major lack of parking places, people are unfriendly and even hotels (that all have a casino) only offer paid parking (if they even have a parking). After having tried the top end hotels, we decided not to even have lunch and continued towards the Turkish border… obviously Batumi was not our kind of town! Standing in line, we applied for our e-visa and the officer was pleased that we had done so upfront. The line was long, but the procedure straightforward (we did have to show our insurance papers next to our vehicle ownership papers).
Telavi via Gremi, Nekresi en Alaverdi, Sighnaghi, Tiblisi, Gudauri (via mtskheta kazbegi), Sadakhlo (+border crossing Armenia) + Zhdanovakanti, Vardzia (grotten), Bakuriani, Kutaisi, Batumi
Telavi via Gremi, Nekresi en Alaverdi, Davit Monestry via Sighnaghi,
Sadakhlo (+border crossing Armenia) + Tiblisi, Bakuriani, Vardzia, Kutaisi, Mestia, Batumi (border crossing)
Border crossing, Telavi, and Davit Gareja monastery
Border crossing into Georgia
Entering Georgia was almost pleasant and took less then 5 minutes. No visa, no payments, no carnet, etc. They did check the car and it was for the first time that they asked what the ‘sealed compartment’ under the truck was…our long range dieseltank.
After buying lunch at the first bakery, we continued through the vineyards following the base of the Caucasus mountain range towards the first main attraction; Nekreski monastery. The monastery lies high into the mountains with a steep climb or shuttle bus. The shuttle bus had just left and the next meant waiting 25 minutes… As we wanted to end the day with a wine tasting, we did not have too much time to waste. We made a picture of the complex from below and drove onto Ananuri Castle. This beautiful stronghold lies right next to the road on the small peak.
From the castle we continued towards Schuchmann wines estate close to Telavi. MapsMe provided us with an interesting shortcut through the grain fields and vineyards via a road that had seen better days witnessing the deep potholes filled with water after the passed days of rain. As we entered the parking the first thing we noticed were two other overland trucks… We immediately clicked with Pete and Jen from the UK, who had done their tour and were now enjoying their wine tasting…
After our short tour through the winery that makes about 25 types of wines European style as well as traditional, using large underground ceramic bowls for fermentation, we started our wine tasting. Halfway through, we sat down with Pete and Jen and a very enjoyable evening with lot’s of stories and wine began. Luckily we had been allowed to camp on the premises that night.
The following morning, we started a bit slow (again sharing stories with Pete and Jen and doing some things around the car. We again had a battery problem, which luckily turned out to be just a loose wire and Pete borrowed our drill (never leave home without it J). After saying goodbye, we drove via Alaverdi Cathedral towards Signagi, a village in the middle of the wine region surrounded by a huge stone wall. In other words, a perfect stop for lunch and a little stroll through the old city.
After lunch we followed the mountain range towards the half-desert slopes of Mount Gareja towards the Azerbaijan border. The complex includes hundreds of cells, churches, chapels, refectories and living quarters hollowed out of the rocks. It was our idea to stay the night close to the Monastery, but did not fancy staying on the parking and decided to make our way towards Tbilisi. The road had not been great going towards the Monastery, but got seriously worse towards Tbilisi… The dirt road had become a mud road and the rain of the passed days made it an interesting experience. After about half an hour, we found a small road that could bring us out of sight of the main road as well as a Dutch campervan next to the road. Stopping next to the campervan, a ‘good evening’ was all it took, to decide to park next to Richard, Petra and their three kids for the night. It was another pleasant evening with good stories and nice wine.