Monday, 20 July 2015

Among Armenians: Postscript: A Georgian Minibreak

world-map tbilisiGreetings!

And again apologies for the late posting. It’s summertime now which means disappearing most weekends to camp, explore castles and churches and generally have a good time instead of sitting in front of a laptop.

Indeed, on my travels this weekend, spent with Paul from the Armenian trip, I was reminded of our journeying by a stone that we saw in a beautiful old church in Meifod, Wales. It was the gravestone of an unnamed Prince of Powys and over 1,000 years old. Staring at its intricate Celtic designs and the primitive crucified Christ at the head I was reminded of an Armenian khatchkar. Was there an ancient connection between the Celts and the Armenians? Some think so, others think not though stones like that one can make you definitely believe it.


Today’s posting is the last in the ‘Among Armenians’ series, next week we’ll have something completely different. I hope that you’ve enjoyed it and that you enjoy this short postscript in neighbouring Georgia as well. Go there one day; I recommend it!

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt


Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of this travelogue


Day 1: Tbilisi to Yerevan

Day 2: Echmiadzin and Yerevan

Day 3: Khor Virap and Yerevan

Day 4: Yerevan to Sisian

Day 5: Sisian to Stepanakert and Gandazar

Day 6: Stepanakert and Aghdam

Day 7: Stepanakert to Yerevan

Day 8: Lake Sevan

Day 9: Garni and Geghard

Postscript: A Georgian Minibreak

And also check out my 2010 trip to the lost lands of the Armenians in Eastern Turkey!

Map of the Caucasus Republic of Georgia

tbilisi map

Postscript – A Georgian Minibreak

The train rolled into Tbilisi Railway Station at a ten to eight in the morning. Bleary-eyed, we alighted, checked our bags into left luggage and then changed some of our pounds into Georgian lari before heading north on the Metro to the Didube Bus Station. I knew Tbilisi a little after having spent several days there in 2010,[1] and that was why I headed for Didube as Didube Bus Station is where the marshrutki for all over Georgia leave from.

The word “marshrutka” (plural “marshrutki”) comes from the Russian “marshrutnoe taksi” (routed taxi) which itself comes from the German “Marschroute”, a combination of “walk” or “march” and “route”. I hadn't liked them the first time that I'd learnt the term back in Didube Bus Station four years before and nothing in the meantime had conspired to improve my image of them, but we needed to head places and last time around I'd learnt that, in Georgia, the train is a far worse option.

We were splitting up, Paul and I. Partially because I had already seen the city that he wished to explore and partly because I enjoy my own company and, whilst Paul had been an excellent travelling companion over the last couple of weeks, I desperately wanted some time alone. Which was all well and good except that, unlike me, Paul hadn't been to Georgia before, couldn't read Cyrillic and didn't speak any Russian. So it was that I found him the marshrutka for Gori, gave him the guidebook so he'd know how to get about once there and then sought my own transport further west to Borjomi.

Gori is Stalin's birthplace and, after the great man's death, Beria turned the city into a virtual shrine to him. I'd visited in 2010, made friends with the stationmaster and thoroughly enjoyed my sojourn there. Around 80km west from his hometown, in a gorge cut by the Mtkvari River, lies another town associated with old Uncle Joe. Borjomi was the old dictator's favourite spa and since I sought some and love spas then, well, was I going to head anywhere else?

I left Tbilisi with me feeling that we were in a very different country to the one that I had left the night before. The Georgians looked different to their southern brethren – still dark features but lighter skin, more European features and, I am afraid to say, much plainer females. Their faith is different too; icons abounded everywhere and whenever a church was passed everyone devotedly crossed themselves thrice, back-to-front. Georgia is the most openly and passionately Orthodox country that I have ever visited. It is also poorer and scruffier than Armenia, (Sevan excepted), but the roads were much better. It reminded me of Romania and Bulgaria in the 1990s. Overall Romania had far greater poverty than Bulgaria, but in amongst the chaos and rubbish there were unexpected signs of wealth that could only be dwelt of south of the Danube, like brand-new high speed trains and the impressive Bucharest Metro.

The marshrutka left Tbilisi behind and passed Mtskheta, the Echmiadzin of Georgia, with its grand stone cathedral, and then veered westwards along a new, smooth and largely-empty dual-carriageway.

The road did not run along the floor of the Mtkvari Valley as the railway does, but instead a mile or so to the north. As we passed Gori it commanded fantastic views over the city and I could pick out the citadel and Stalin Museum that I had visited on my last trip. I just hoped that Paul would enjoy them as much as I had done. Also of interest was a close-up view of the IDP[2] settlement that I had spied from the citadel before and an enormous military base to the north of the city close by the highway. Both were there because, less than a mile north of the road, lies South Ossetia, the region that declared its independence from Georgia during the 2008 conflict when the Russians invaded and occupied Gori itself for a few days. If things kick-off again in Georgia, this is the spot where it is most likely to happen.

After Khashuri, a nondescript town some fifty kilometres on from Gori, the valley narrowed and became very picturesque, the scenery changing from wide Central Asian brown expanse to almost Alpine slopes and greens. Soon we were in Borjomi itself, the main settlement in those parts, and at the bus station I summoned a taxi and asked the driver to find me some suitable accommodation. He took me over the Mtkvari and up a steep hill to a private house where rooms were being rented out at 30 lari per night. The one that I was shown was good and the location pleasant and so I took it and slumped thankfully on the bed, tired of all the travel.

I took a walk around the town which really was a charming place indeed. I'd wanted to visit back in 2010 but hadn't had time and so I was glad to have the chance to do so now. I crossed back over the river and then followed two ladies dressed in long black skirts and headscarves, the attire of religious Orthodox women, to the former Hotel Borjomi, a huge ex-Inturist concrete slab at the eastern end of the town now full of refugees from Abkhazia, the other Georgian province which has broken away from its parent country and declared independence, (like South Ossetia, with considerable Russian assistance). It was a sorry-looking place, with washing hanging from the balconies, a slice of misery in the midst of an Alpine paradise. Having just come from Nagorno-Karabagh this place provided the flip-side view of such post-Soviet unrecognised entities. Like with Nagorno-Karabagh, (and South Ossetia and Transdniestra), the majority of the population of Abkhazia had wished for independence, usually because of a culture of aggressive nationalism in the parent country, but there were also those who wished to maintain the status quo and were thus forced out of the land where their families had dwelt for generations. Doubtless, there are similar sorry hovels full of refugees across Azerbaijan peopled by the former inhabitants of those now sorry and broken ruins that we had seen at Aghdam. I wondered what stories those two traditionally-attired girls could tell, which village they had been forced from, what cottage, vegetable garden and orchard they had left behind.

borjomi4 The Mtkvari with the former Hotel Borjomi in the background

Having seen the dark side of Borjomi, I headed to the town’s museum to explore its history. On the way I saw more evidence of the local religiosity: an elderly priest was walking the streets and passers-by were coming up to him and asking for blessings. Although undoubtedly religious, we had witnessed nothing like that in Armenia and whilst from a distance the Armenian and Georgian churches may appear to the stranger to be much the same, in actual fact they are markedly different in many areas aside from how they view the Council of Chalcedon.

Borjomi’s museum was a delight. Housed in a rambling – and crumbling – villa once owned by the Romanovs, it contained a variety of artwork, stuffed animals and artefacts. I found of particular interest the sections of the town’s bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympics and a gallery sponsored by BP on local archaeological finds, (whilst building a pipeline through the area, the oil giant had paid for archaeological digs and restored an ancient church which I would have loved to have had the chance to visit).

After the museum I walked to the spa itself. On the way I passed the railway station which now hosts a restaurant, the Metropol, where I decided to dine. The bowl of kharcho, (a traditional Georgian dish that contains mutton, garlic, rice and vegetables in a spicy soup), was excellent – Armenian food is good, but Georgian is world-class – but the waitress, a young lady named Maiya, was the most miserable that I have ever come across.

The spa is located in a park about a kilometre from the town centre. It was a lovely walk, past a string of traditional Georgian villas with incredible fretwork. One had been restored and is now the headquarters of the Borjomi Spa Water Company whose products are seen on tables all across Georgia and beyond, (it was once the most popular mineral water in the USSR),. By the park gates a new hotel was being built but it was not distasteful and when it is finished and the whole promenade by the river completed, the area will be very pleasant indeed.

02 The Spa at Borjomi

I paid a nominal fee to enter the park which was well-maintained initially but got tattier the further I ventured in. After half a mile or so it petered out entirely but I continued walking through the beautiful forested gorge to the public bath set in a meadow in the middle of the mountains, away from any civilisation.

It was an incredible place, one of the most beautiful bathing spots that I have ever visited, marred only by the litter left by previous visitors. There were few other people there then, al locals, including one charming wide-hipped girl, but after twenty minutes or so they all left and I had the place entirely to myself save for the presence of a few grazing cows. I submerged myself in the glorious sulphurous water lazily, feeling that life couldn’t get any better. There is no pleasure on earth greater than that of bathing in a spa and few spas as marvellous as that one with regards to setting.

14ef2e62c904 The bathing pool in the woods

I strolled back through the woods to the park where I imbibed two pints of water from Stalin's favourite spring. It was slightly warm, very sulphurous and tingly and although I enjoyed it, I couldn't have drank anymore. Then I made my way back to the Metropol where I dined again, this time on chakapuli, a stew of lamb, scallions and greens with tarragon. It was again excellent and Maiya again morose and what is more, the CD again the same, three songs on loop, one of which was James Blunt's 'You're Beautiful' which is a nice song once or twice but rather grating after ten plays.

Back up the steep hill to my room, I fell into conversation with the owner, a friendly chap who had lived for ten years in the USA and boasted of visiting no less than twenty-five states. He admitted to missing his life there somewhat, but then moved onto talking about currency exchange rates, being much impressed by the strength of pound sterling. As we talked a car pulled up and out got the pretty wide-hipped girl from the bathing pool who said hello and turned out to be his daughter.

That evening, after the sun had set, I walked down into the town to buy some water. Borjomi truly is a beautiful place by night as much as by day. I passed a fantastic pseudo-Gothic castle which turned out to be a former palace of the Romanovs, Borjomi being a magnet for all the great and good in the old imperial days, attracting such luminaries as Chekov and Tchiakovsky as well as Stalin and a number of tsars. On mountain slopes above the town, several large crosses were illuminated in neon providing spiritual guidance in the blackness. It was a friendly place too. After I'd bought the water and a few snacks from the supermarket, I saw my taxi driver who waved hello. Only in town a few hours and already feeling part of the family! It was nice, a fantastic and relaxing end to the trip and I was a happy man as I ascended back up the hill to my room where I finished 'Shadow of the Moon' before turning in for the night.

I was up early the following morning to catch the nine o'clock marshrutka back to Tbilisi. I would have dearly loved to have spent several days relaxing and walking in the hills about Borjomi but it was not possible and at least I had been lucky enough to experience it once. Maybe next time...?

On the way back to the capital I read from cover to cover a rather strange Japanese novel named 'Hotel Iris' by one Yoko Ogawa which I found rather enjoyable although in my mind's eye reality mixed with fiction and whilst the overall setting was definitely a rather sleepy Japanese seaside resort, the hotel itself was the eccentric edifice of Borjomi Museum.

Upon arrival I took the Metro to the railway station where I dropped my overnight bag and then made my way to Freedom Square, the heart of the city. I'd decided to check out the National Museum not having managed to do so on my last visit, but it was shut, the day being Good Friday. Not realising that it was such a holy day, (to be fair, I think the Georgian Church uses a different calendar to the Anglican), I popped into the adjacent Kashveti Church. To be fair, as churches go, this one was nothing remarkable, only dating from the early 20th century, but I must admit that I enjoyed being in a church with plenty of icons.

I wandered along Rustaveli Avenue back to Freedom Square and then down Pushkin Street towards the river. That whole area had been extensively renovated since my last visit, the traditional wooden houses with fretwork balconies that have a flavour of New Orleans looking spruce and handsome, whilst below them the old city walls had been excavated and imaginatively presented.

I stopped to buy presents in a market and then dined on kharcho and garlic aubergine in a little restaurant before continuing on to the river itself, my intention to head to the old city. I never got that far however, as I spied a fascinating-looking church which turned out to be the Anchiskhati Church, the oldest in all Tbilisi. I went inside and found a real gem. Dating from the 6th century with chunky Romanesque pillars, it had a smattering of worshippers inside as the priests busied themselves preparing for the service of Divine Liturgy. I went around kissing the icons and then waited as the Liturgy commenced. It was indescribably beautiful, an earthy, sweet Orthodoxy that soothes the senses and brings one closer to God. I stayed for some time stood by a pillar, (there are few chairs in Orthodox churches), soaking up the Divine Liturgy until it grew so crowded that one could hardly move.

Anchiskhati-Basili_2420376c Inside the Anchiskhati Church

Then I went on my way, retreating to a cafe adjacent to a strange, crooked, ancient-looking clocktower, (but which I suspect must be brand-new as it is not mentioned in my (2007) guidebook. There I sipped tea and began writing a short story inspired by a trip earlier in the year along the Heart of Wales Line[3] whilst all the while I could still hear the haunting Liturgy being chanted in the background.

14161748188_aa0ebf032f_z The curious clocktower

After my tea I walked through the Old City. There was evidence of much renovation since 2010 and Tbilisi is fast becoming a very pleasant city indeed. I went shopping for a hat; not any old hat but a very specific one. Back in 2010 I'd bought one from a roadside vendor when my marshrutka had stopped en route to Kazbegi. The hat in question was a knitted woollen one decorated with crosses all the way around. Despite having a number of slightly ridiculous hats in my possession, I had never come across one that was quite 'me'. Or at least, not until that marshrutka stopped that fateful day. The hat was comfy, stylish in an “I'm not stylish whatsoever” kind of way and, most importantly of all, something of a talking point, (Matt, where on earth did you get that?!”). I wore it everywhere until, on a trip to St. David's earlier in the year, I left it behind by accident. Since then I had been hatless, almost naked wherever I roamed. How fortuitous therefore, that I had already booked another trip to Georgia to replace it.

The hat in question was a traditional Georgian design, but although there were no shortage of traditional Georgian hats on sale in all the souvenir shops, all were of a very different, far sillier and furrier type. I guessed that my hat was probably only traditional in a certain region, (that around Kazbegi I assume), whilst these dafter headpieces were from a different region. However, after extensive and dedicated searching, I did locate a shop near to Freedom Square with a much wider hat selection and I bought several ensuring that my hat may be properly clad for years to come.

14347553734_b53cc41f1c_z Beer advert showing a trio of Georgian hats. The ones on sale everywhere were like that on the left; mine is like the one on the right

I made my way back to the railway station where I passed the time writing the short story and drinking Natakhtari Pear Lemonade, a firm favourite from my first visit. After an hour or so Paul arrived and, after catching up on each other's activities – he had really enjoyed Gori – we made our way back to the Old Town so that he could see a little of the highlights of the capital. We walked through the narrow streets to the river where a swish new bridge leads to a brand-new park. Once again, it was clear that there had been substantial investment in improving Tbilisi in recent years and the city that I had been lukewarm about in 2010 I was now really beginning to like.

And the greatest of all those improvements led from the newly laid-out park to the imposing statue of Mother Georgia, (a sister of Mother Armenia in Yerevan and Mother Ukraine in Kiev), stood on the Sololaki Ridge which runs to the west of the Old Town. This was a brand-new cablecar which whisked us up, over and above the city on an amazing journey, before depositing us at the feet of the great woman herself and next to the Narikala Citadel. Four years before I'd scrambled up the hill in the intense summer heat to the citadel only to discover nondescript ruins and a hawker selling lukewarm bottled mineral water. This was far more civilised!

Mother Georgia herself (Kartlis Deda in Georgian) is, like her Armenian sister, an impressive lady, a twenty metre high aluminium statue carrying a sword in one hand and a bowl in the other. Constructed between 1958 and 1963, her choice of objects to hold demonstrates that Georgia is hospitable but also ready to defend herself. Stood at her feet though, she was not the main attraction, but instead the city itself, laid out like a carpet below us, glittering in the spring sunlight.

14161740688_ac352d869e_z Paul overlooking Tbilisi

And there we finished our Georgian minibreak and indeed, our entire Caucasian odyssey. We'd no more energy or head space left for sightseeing and only wanted to soak up the atmosphere and relax for the few remaining hours until our plane departed back to Amsterdam. After all, there'd be little chance to do either when we got back home. And it had been a good trip, for Paul all had been new, for me a mix of both the alien and the familiar, but enjoyable in equal measure. The South Caucasus are home to some of the most ancient and fascinating human civilisations on earth and it packs a lot into a very small space, (Georgia is roughly the same size as the Republic of Ireland whilst Armenia is smaller). What is more, very few people seem to have cottoned on to just how brilliant it is. Which for me, is not a problem at all.

14161893297_2ea28aa84d_z Georgia: It’s all about the Natakhtari Pear Lemonade and Borjomi Water


Written Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, 9th December, 2014




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The Crossing Place

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Georgia (Edition 3)

Tim Burford

Published by Bradt Travel Guides Ltd. (Chalfont St. Peter, UK) 2007


A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility

Taner Akçam

Published by Constable Ltd. (London, UK) 2007



Mass Wedding in Karabakh Results in Baby Boom 20/08/2009


Nagorno-Karabakh: Mass Wedding Hopes to Spark Baby Boom in Separatist Territory 23/10/2008

[1] See my travelogue 'Latvia, Georgia and Turkey 2010'.

[2] Internally Displaced Persons

[3] Caertomos


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