Published: October 16th 2011August 2nd 2011
This little grasshopper joined us for lunch
Drinking and bathing in the Evian of the USSR
An interesting question came up during this trip: are the three countries in Caucasus, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, in Europe or Asia? It is not a question that has any obvious answer.
The boundary between Europe and Asia is said to run in the Ural Mountains and in the Caspian Sea. Since the Caspian Sea is east of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan that could place all three nations in Europe. We can also add a few examples that indicate that they indeed are European nations.
* Eurovision Song Contest (For non-Europeans: It is a large annual TV-show the best can be described as European Championships in music. Check this link for more information
). Every year the three Caucasian nations join and this year Azerbaijan even won.
* European Championships in Football: All three nations in Caucasus are free to play in the tournament if they manage to qualify.
* Council of Europe: All three nations in Caucasus are members.
But the boundary between Europe and Asia is also said to run through the Bosporus in western end of Turkey. All three Caucasian nations are
View over Borjomi
At dusk we had this view over Borjomi from Mineral Water Park
far to the east of the Bosporus and that would put them firmly in Asia.
If you look at a map and draw a line through the Bosporus and then via the Black Sea through Caucasus into the Caspian Sea and then north up in the Urals then it looks like Georgia could be in Europe and Armenia and Azerbaijan could be in Asia. If you want to have a look at a map you can try this link
To finally solve this problem we had a look at CIA World Fact Book
. It is a site with loads of facts on every nation in the world. They actually list the three Caucasian nations as being part of the Middle East! But when we read more carefully we noticed that they also say that all three of them are in Asia.
So we guess that the proper thing to say is that Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan are located in Asia. But to us Georgia feels very European.
When we went to Georgia we flew with Baltic Airlines. On the way to Georgia we had a stopover in Riga long enough to leave the airport and visit
In his heydays Stalin was the living person who had the most statues raised over him. Today there are very few left
the city for a few hours. One of the things we did then was to buy a bottle of Borjomi mineral water.
If you have read other entries of this blog you have probably realised that we are both very fond of Eastern Europe and the countries that used to be part of the USSR. Before 1991 Georgia was part of the Soviet Union. One of the commodities exported from Georgia to the rest of Soviet Union was Borjomi mineral water. Even today, when Georgia is an independent nation, the Borjomi mineral water can be found in many of the nations that were formed when Soviet Union collapsed. We have a silly nickname of the Borjomi Mineral water. We call it "the Evian of Soviet Union".
We have drunk Borjomi several times and it is not our favourite table water to be honest. So the nickname is a bit ironic. But the water is well known to us and now when we had the chance to visit the town that has named the water we just had to take it. We are very glad we did because we had a very good time there. The town is a
Mineral Water Park
Mineral Water Park traces its history back at least 150 years. It is a place for amusement and recreation for the entire family
surprisingly nice place with plenty of things to see and to do.
The first place we went to was a cemetery on a small hill overlooking the outskirts of the town. At the cemetery we could get a view over the town and the valley the town lies in. But the main attraction of the cemetery was not the view but something totally different - a statue of Josef Stalin. In his heydays Stalin ordered every town and village in Soviet Union to erect at least one statue over him. How many statues there were all over the country is hard to say but 10,000 would be a very conservative estimate. But when he died in 1953 and his reign of terror finally was over almost every statue of Stalin was dismantled and a few years later there was hardly a single one left. It gives a bit of a perspective on what people really thought of Stalin. The statue in the Borjomi cemetery has for some reason survived. This statue of Stalin is not unique but to see one is very unusual.
In one end of Borjomi there is a park named Ekaterina Park or Mineral Water
From the entrance to Mineral Water Park it is possible to take a cable car to a Ferris wheel and a restaurant overlooking the park and Borjomi town
Park. It is a park that traces its history back at least 150 years. The park is located in a valley with a small creek running through it. This park is a kind of all family and all ages entertainment park. In the park there is a cinema, a playground for children, restaurants and cafés and from the park entrance it is possible to take a cable car to a Ferris wheel and a restaurant overlooking the park. From the restaurant the view over Borjomi was much much better than the one from the cemetary.
In the park it is also possible to get free Borjomi mineral water from a natural well. Just outside the park there is another well where anyone can fill up private bottles with fresh Borjomi water. One interesting detail about these wells is that the water from them is naturally carbonated.
When we visited the Mineral Water Park we were recommended to walk through it and continue up the river along a path that runs there. Around two kilometres beyond the end of the park there is another natural mineral water spring. The water from that spring is hot and is led into
Swimming in the Evian of the Soviet Union
Around two kilometres beyond the end of Mineral Water Park there is a natural mineral water spring where the water is led into a pool.
a pool. Here we had the unique opportunity to swim in real Borjomi mineral water. Even though the water was a bit murky this was an opportunity not to be missed. We went in and had a swim.
South of Borjomi, two hours drive approximately, is a large cave monastery named Vardzia. We decided to leave Borjomi for a day and go and visit this place. We went to Vardzia by taxi, because that would allow us to make stops along the way if we felt like it, and we shared the taxi with two Estonians we became friends with while we were in Borjomi.
Vardzia was founded as a monastery more than 1,000 years ago. The monastery was housed in caves, most of them cut out of the rock with the use of only very simple tools. Much of the monastery has over the last centuries been destroyed by earthquakes so today it is hard to picture what Vardzia once looked like. It is believed that at one time as many as 2,000 monks lived in Vardzia at the same time and that the monastery at that time had as many as 3,000 rooms. Today only about
Bottle of Borjomi
Borjomi Mineral Water, or as we call it - the Evian of the Soviet Union, was popular all over the USSR. Even today Borjomi can be found in former USSR countries. Here is one in Riga, Latvia
one fifth of those rooms can be seen and many of those that are still standing are damaged. But still it is a very impressive site.
As we mentioned in the previous blog entry this is the second time Ake visits Georgia. He was there a few weeks in the mid 1990-ies. Back then there were no guidebooks available on Georgia at that made it very difficult to travel around. He simple didn't know what there was to see in the country. One of the places he missed completely was Vardzia. But the funny thing is he did visit another much smaller cave monastery named Vanis-Kvabi which is located just two kilometres or so away from Vardzia. From Vanis-Kvabi it is even possible to see Vardzia if you look very carefully and know what to look for.
After Vardzia we visited Vanis-Kvabi but before that we made a stop at a spa just outside the entrance to Vardzia. It was the tourist information in Borjomi that told us of the spa. The taxi driver had not visited Vardzia before so he had no idea of where this spa was. He stopped at a few places and asked for
South of Borjomi is a large cave monastery named Vardzia
it and finally he stopped near a house that looked like the outhouse of Bates Motel
. He disappeared for a few minutes and when he came back there was a woman with him. We followed the driver and the woman to the strange looking house and when she opened the door there was actually a pool in house. The pool was continuously fed with hot water from a natural well and the water was clean and nice. The tourist information in Borjomi obviously had no idea what this spa looked like. Because if they had they would never have told us about it. The house and everything in it was totally falling apart. The roof will probably cave in within a year of two. The original water supply system had been abandoned because it was too rusty to stay together. The old pipes were lying around the place and together with an old rusty water tank it all reminded us of something from a Mad Max movie. The surplus water from the pool was allowed to go on the floor where a simple trench had been dug to let the water out.
In spite of the strange appearance of
Vardzia was founded as a monastery more than 1,000 years ago.
this spa, which obvious is not normally visited by tourists, the water was lovely and we had a great time taking a swim there. That the house and everything in it was about to fall apart only made the swim more interesting.
After the spa we went to the cave city Vanis-Kvabi further up the road. Ake and one of the Estonian friends went from the road up to that monastery and had a look where as Emma and the other of our friends stayed behind and waited. It was quite a climb up but at the top the reward was an interesting labyrinth of caves connected by ladders and staircases and a good view over the valley all the way to Vardzia.
Just up the road from Vanis-Kvabi Ake recognised a cliff with a ruin on top of it that he remembered from his visit in Georgia 15 years ago. On the way back towards Borjomi we stopped there to take a photo. Later we leaned that the ruin on top of the cliff is a fortress named Tmogvi. The fortress is located so high up that it barely can be seen from the road. Tmogvi fortress
The monastery was housed in caves, most of them cut out of the rock with the use of only very simple tools
doesn't look like much. It is funny that it could create a memory so strong that Ake could recognise it 15 years later.
On the way back towards Borjomi we stopped at a few places. One of them was Khertvisi fortress. Khertvisi fortress is together with Vardzia nominated for inclusion on the World Heritage List. Khertvisi fortress is, like most fortresses, located on the top of a hill. That was of course to make sure that the soldiers defending the castle could see the enemy coming at a distance and to make it difficult to attack. To fight an enemy that is above you is much harder than to fight one below you. But what we don't understand is why on earth an enemy would bother to attack the fortress. It must be much easier to go around the fortress. Then you can invade the country without fighting the soldiers. They are just defending their fortresses anyway.
We just have to write a little about the taxi driver who drove us to Vardzia this day because he was a bit of a character. When we entered the taxi he insisted on playing western music on the radio. We
Today only about one fifth of Varzia still remains and many of the rooms are damaged. But still it is a very impressive site.
told him that it was OK to play any music but he only wanted to play the records he had with pop and rock from the west. He explained to us that he didn't play those songs so much for us as for himself. Rock music was his personal favourite and having us in the car gave him a good reason to play it. Of all the songs on the records there was one that he loved more than all the other put together. That was Europe's
song the Final Countdown
. He played the song over and over again really loud and we all sang along like crazy of course.
Before we finish this blog entry we would like to write about one more place we visited in central Georgia, namely Kutaisi. When we arrived there we first took a taxi and visited two monasteries located a few kilometres outside the town. The first one is called Motsameta. We couldn't see much of the church there though because there was a wedding going on. But we had a quick peek inside. But it was not the interior of the monastery that was the big reward here it was the
Large sections of the monastery have been destroyed by earthquakes so it is hard today to picture what Vardzia once looked like
location and the views. The monastery is wonderfully positioned on the edge of a cliff surrounded by greenery.
The second monastery is called Gelati and is listed on the World Heritage List together with Bagrati Cathedral in Kutaisi.
We had difficulties visiting Gelati too because there was a wedding ceremony going on here as well. But we waited a while and we managed go inside and have a look after the ceremony was over. But we had to hurry because there was another couple getting married right after the first one. The walls of Gelati monastery are covered with interesting murals. Some of them are up to 800 years old.
The last place we visited in Kutaisi was the Bagrati Cathedral. That was not really a working church. They have held ceremonies until quite recently but the church is really just a ruin. Right now they are doing plenty of construction work on the ruins. If they are trying to restore the cathedral to its former glory or if they are trying to steady the existing ruins and stop further destruction we don't know. But we do know that most of Bagrati Cathedral was covered with scaffolding
The outhouse of Bates Motel?
Outside Vardzia was a house that looked like the outhouse of Bates Motel. Inside the house was a pool
at the time of our visit.
There are more photos below