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April 4th 2009
Published: April 4th 2009
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Monasteries, Churches and Wine in Georgia


Jvari Church, MtskhetaJvari Church, MtskhetaJvari Church, Mtskheta

How they seem to do it in Georgia is: find a hill and build a church on it, but make sure there's a [i]bigger[/i] hill behind it so it looks even more dramatic. Christian architechts have always built a church in a high place as it's 'nearer' to God, but I'm not convinced they didn't say to each other: "This'll look great on a calendar, you watch..." Sorry about the telegraph lines, couldn't find a better location from which to shoot.


Outside the Parliament building in central Tbilisi they're flying the blue EU flag next to the Georgian national one. But if I get a map and draw a line directly south from here, it passes through Iran which is definitely in Asia. Also Georgia is further East than "Middle East" countries like Lebanon, Israel and Jordan... so where am I? It's this location at the cross-roads of 3 distinct geographical areas, not fully-in or fully-out of any of them, that has led to just about everybody having a crack at Georgia. It's history is blood-red and she has been Greek, Roman, Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Mongol and Russian, when not self-governing. And I might even have left a couple out of that list. Most of the time it has been a Christian nation; the second to be converted, they're fond of saying (after Armenia) but invaders brought Islam for a time and way, way back there was even some Zoroastrianism.

In central Tbilisi the police cars drive around with their flashing red and blue-lights permanently on. They're not chasing anyone and they're not on their way to an emergency, that's just what they do. As well as the light-show
He has left us alone, but shafts of light sometimes grace the corner of our rooms (Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, Mtskheta)He has left us alone, but shafts of light sometimes grace the corner of our rooms (Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, Mtskheta)He has left us alone, but shafts of light sometimes grace the corner of our rooms (Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, Mtskheta)

God had more than just the one team of architechts working on Vietnam by the way; he had another bunch working on cathedrals in Georgia. They correctly predicted that with a rotunda high enough, with the smoke of candles, the sunlight coming through the window would appear as if it was God's own light streaming in, which was of course the effect the architect deliberately wanted to achieve.
they frequently use an ugly-sounding buzzer and shout at someone through a loudspeaker.

Every now and then there's a building that leans over at an angle that would have been condemned years ago in the UK. Here it's somebody's business premises, maybe a welding shop or a fruit-seller. Tbilisi is the most run-down place I've seen on my trip so far. Years of neglect have left manhole covers fallen in and the kerbs and road surfaces are cracked and rippled. Almost every taxi or marshrutka minibus has a cracked windscreen from loose roadstones. The pavements are the same, you couldn't get around in a wheelchair if you were disabled.

I think most of this delapidation is recent - I don't think you can ascribe much of it to life under the communist machine. A friend in Kiev told me that once everything used to be just fine, but since each former Soviet state had to fend for itself in the new era of capitalism, things that once were the business of the state to fund and maintain became privately owned and of course, nobody wanted to spend the money once it was coming from their own pocket. You
Metekhi Church and statue of King Vakhtang GorgasiliMetekhi Church and statue of King Vakhtang GorgasiliMetekhi Church and statue of King Vakhtang Gorgasili

Tbilisi city centre. There are so many churches around that everytime I raised my camera there were 3 of them in the viewfinder, and if I moved to the side to get rid of one, a new one appeared.
know when you see on the news that a sizeable percentage of Eastern European states would vote the communists back in if the party was in any shape? This is why. At least stuff worked when they were in charge. But now Babushkas don't clean the weeds out between the paving-stones anymore because nobody is paying them. And road-crews don't have the materials or enough men to fill in pot-holes. And when they do it's just an improvised patch-job.

However, if you take a walk up Mtasminda Hill or to the Narikala fortress in the old town and take a look down, Tbilisi has to be one of the most spectacular cities I have ever seen. From a distance all that fine detail disappears and you will be confronted with a beautiful valley with the river Mt'k'vari winding through it, churches in every direction and cliff-edges. In the evening they floodlight the most spectacular buildings, the radio/TV tower sparkles with strobe lights, there are beacons all along the riverside walk and the whole effect is all rather fantastic. She is a gem, Tbilisi, and so are her people.


Silence is the new Black



Almost every Georgian
'Twin Brothers Cellar' in Napereuli, 20km North of Telavi'Twin Brothers Cellar' in Napereuli, 20km North of Telavi'Twin Brothers Cellar' in Napereuli, 20km North of Telavi

Romeo's holding a glass of his 'just taken from the clay-pot' white wine, and it was fantastic. And a hangover from this stuff is clean because they don't use any chemicals during growing or later on to filter.
wears black; they're not depressed, it's just every one of them thinks it suits them. I stand out with by my brown fleece and so everywhere I go I see eyes flicking over to check me out: "...hey (nudge), what's with that guy over there..." I've found them to be the most hospitable I've yet come across and the most devout with their faith. I'm not sure even the Italians in Rome can match what happens here. The inside of the churches are full of hushed reverence as people continually come up to the pictures and icons on the wall and kiss their fingers to the picture, or maybe they kiss it directly. Most pictures have perspex or glass over them to prevent wearing out from all the contact. And if your taxi driver starts crossing himself repeatedly while you're crossing town, have a look out the window: you'll be passing a church. The church around the corner from the homestay had women continually looking after one grave with candles in the open-air, I don't know whom they were, but every time I passed someone was attending.

I try never to go into churches any more, but of course
Clay pot for wine-fermentingClay pot for wine-fermentingClay pot for wine-fermenting

This one's about 3 feet long but sometimes they're bigger. It's on its side it's at the winery as a bit of decoration. The next picture shows you more about how they're used...
I've been doing a lot of it on this trip. The reason is you get a great idea about people from what their beliefs are, hence all the Russian Orthodox churches in Alaska, the Buddhist and Shinto temples I saw in Japan, mosques in Malaysia, the Cao-Dai cathedral in Vietnam and now I'm back in Europe it's Christian of course, which I'm more familiar with.


Wine-making and Georgian hospitality



You also get a great idea about people from the food and drink. Unfortunately Georgia's having a hard time of it recently with her wine industry. Russia closed the border in 2006 because of ill-feeling, not just to people but to exports too. Georgian wine and spring water used to go all over the Soviet Union, but now it's trapped and they've lost a fortune in exports.

Like I said, the hospitality: it's been incredible. But note that you can't do that 'polite-refusal' thing us Brits do if you decide to come here. Normally we refuse things twice before gracefully accepting the third offer - both sides understand the gentle pressuring and the graceful 'we are not worthy' declining ritual we always think it necessary to go
Clay pots buried undergroundClay pots buried undergroundClay pots buried underground

What they do is bury each pot up to the neck and fill each with crushed grape-juice, skins and all, after the harvest in October. It then sits for 6 months over the winter with a glass lid on the top with a clay seal, and sand over the top to keep the air out. Romeo is excavating the one from which he took the sample for me up above.
through. Here, you have to accept it things that are offered straight off. Then once you're sat down and there's food and drink on the table, you have to drink when they do as everything is done by toasting. You don't drink unless someone's stood up and saying something noble about friendship or history. Oh, and don't toast anyone with beer. Georgians only toast their enemies with beer, I have found out.

Twice I've been invited out for a feast by people I only just met - once by Davit, my taxi driver, and another time by Gyorgi in the internet cafe who was so pleased I liked his home-country. And it's not a 'let's go out for some food' sort of deal, it's a full-blown international accord of 'our country hosting your country' affair. Georgian wine is good stuff and I think we should import some ourselves. I've had a few nights out on the stuff now, been helped into the taxi at the end of and had a clean head the next morning - apart from a touch of dehydration - because almost all of it is produced without artificial fertilisers or chemicals in its manufacture.
After the wine; Cha-ChaAfter the wine; Cha-ChaAfter the wine; Cha-Cha

No, not dancing - it's the spirit they distill from the stuff at the bottom of the clay pots, and rather pleasant it is too at 40% volume, which is similar to bottled whisky. This is one of the two small stills Romeo uses for the process.

Did you know Georgia is the oldest-known producer of wine? No, neither did I. Seems they found some clay pots dating to about 5000BC, scraped off some organic residue from the inside and stuck it in a spectrometer or something, and, "Hey! That's wine!" A different manufacturing process here to anything I've seen before though.

After the harvest in October they store the crushed grapes with all the juice in a clay pot buried in the ground to regulate the temperature. The pot is sealed with clay, a plate of glass and then sand over the top. By March or April all the solids are at the bottom and the top is full of wine, filtered by time and gravity. They pump the wine out slowly, giving it an extra light filter, then batch and bottle and that's it finished. It's low-ish volume, they don't churn out the quantities they can in Australia. Georgian wine usually throws a sediment as it's inevitable a little bit of the solids will make it through as well, so don't drain the bottle, or maybe drink it through clenched teeth. In Telavi I visited the "Twin Brothers Cellar" where Romeo showed us around.
Tbilisi:  Cracked and run-down.Tbilisi:  Cracked and run-down.Tbilisi: Cracked and run-down.

Sometimes no tarmac, the kerbs are still there but frequently uneven or broken. Puddles of rain and picking your way around; that's what it's like here. Don't wear your best shoes, you'll regret it.
Davit and me pitched up about 10:30 am and Romeo immediately pulled off the glass from a pot he'd already been sampling to see if it was ready yet. One large glass of white later he wasn't completely satisfied with giving me just that to taste, so he opened another pot just for me and dipped a 2nd glass. Lovely semi-dry it was, though I didn't get what grape it was, but more on grapes further down.

Then he led us past two stills, (...stills?) through to the laboratory where his quality control gear and bottling line was. I was handed a glass of red this time, a Cabernet. It's not indigenous to Georgia I think, but I wanted to taste a grape I had some experience with. So 3 glasses down, I asked about the stills. It seems after wine-making the grapes and juice residue is scraped out from the bottom of the pots and this is distilled to make Georgian spirit: Chacha (say it just like the dance). I tasted some at 40%!s(MISSING)trength and it was just fine, and at that point I had to leave the premises as I'd had 3 large glasses of wine
Refugee camps outside Tbilisi from South OssetiaRefugee camps outside Tbilisi from South OssetiaRefugee camps outside Tbilisi from South Ossetia

Just outside Tbilisi, on the road to Gori we passed 3 camps of pre-fabricated houses where I think the Geogians who were kicked out of South Ossetia last year are living now. Apologies for the quality of the photo; taken from a moving vehicle.
and chacha on top of a light omelette for breakfast, all before it was even midday.

So: somebody tell me where I can find Georgian wine back home if you know. A lot of it is semi-sweet: Kindzmarauli and Saperavi were the two indigenous grapes I tried, the Kindzmarauli the sweeter one. It's actually a little difficult to drink on it's own, not quite as sweet as desert wine, but that sweetness disappears if you drink it with the Georgian khatchapuri bread. It flat and slightly burned in spots - looks like an Indian Naan - but has cheese melted through the middle and I ate one most days from street stalls.


Gori, tanks and Stalin



During the August war last year Russian tanks were crawling all over Gori. It's only about 45 minutes by Marshrutka minibus-taxi from Tbilisi. It doesn't look like a town that's been in a scrap, but I don't want to make light of it; some people were killed here. The town looks pretty ordinary, but on the highway here we passed rows and rows of pre-fab huts where the ethnic Georgians who used to live in South Ossetia are now refugees
This is the Georgian language, 'Kartuli', you ever seen anything like-? This is the Georgian language, 'Kartuli', you ever seen anything like-? This is the Georgian language, 'Kartuli', you ever seen anything like-?

No, neither have I. I learned to read a little though: this one says: "[i]One ring to rule them all, and in the darkness-[/i]" - no, that's not what it says, but it [i]looks[/i] like it should. I think it's a chemist.
waiting to see what happens to them next.

Apparently the Russians voted Stalin the 3rd greatest Russian of all time back in December. He's from Gori. There's a museum to him there and the house where he was brought up is preserved in the garden outside, as well as his bullet-proof rail-carriage. The museum dwells on his achievements and makes no mention of the millions killed during his purges.

Other sights I saw were the David Gareja and Vardzia monasteries; a quick drive through Sighnaghi which upset me because it was so beautiful I realised I should have stayed there instead of Telavi; a day in Kutaisi and another in Poti on the Black Sea coast, waiting for the ferry. In the middle of all this I took a marshrutka to Armenia for a week which I'm going to tell you about in the next episode. Then after that I'll have a little more to say about Georgia. So: be with you very soon, the Armenia entry is nearly finished already...


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Snow in TelaviSnow in Telavi
Snow in Telavi

Just so you know I didn't get it all my way by heading South for the Winter, I returned to Eastern Europe a little too early in the year and got snowed on a couple of times.
Apartment blocks, TelaviApartment blocks, Telavi
Apartment blocks, Telavi

See this everywhere in the Eastern European countries. The Soviet Union was a big monster and it behaved like one. So a successful building design would be copied, cookie-cutter style right across the union. This is a typical result: apartment blocks even in places out in the country where there was space to build out, not up.
Spring is coming...Spring is coming...
Spring is coming...

...these flowering trees are all over Georgia. They look like Japanese cherry blossom from a distance, with a fuzzy pale-pink bloom all over. I couldn't ID it, anyone help?
David Gareja MonasteryDavid Gareja Monastery
David Gareja Monastery

It's from the 6th Century and one of Georgia's most holy sites. Our panorama up top is from there too.
Poti, Black Sea CoastPoti, Black Sea Coast
Poti, Black Sea Coast

Final call in Georgia: UkrFerry runs a service between Poti and Ilyichevsk, near to Odessa in the Ukraine and it was how I left the region.


4th April 2009

Gamarjoba
Thanks for the great stories from your trip. They made me remember alot ;) I like your perception and way of writing! Safe journeys
5th April 2009

Georgia
Matrin - my brother in law is married to a Georgian and when Russia invaded a few months back she was in Tblisi visiting her parents with the kids. Alan flew from Aberdeen to Baku, picked up his car as they still had an apartment there and drove for 24 hours solid into Tblisi through the mountains avoiding tanks etc. He was hugely brave and basically rescued them all and drove through road blocks to get out rather than being shot at. They only just made it in time. ENJOY!!
6th April 2009

Orthodox Christianity
The Christianity you experienced in Georgia is Orthodox similar to the Greek, Russian, Serbian, Romanian and others. But all have differences between them since they have their own Church establishments. Still you can recognise some main traditions... like I could bet a lot of money that your taxi driver would cross himself 3 times while driving passed a church !!! If you want to 'live' the most amazing, atmospheric, 'closer to GOD', Mother of all Orthodox churches then you must visit Hagia Sophia in Constandinoupolis (Istanbul for some!) in Turkey. Do not forget to vote towards restoration to its original religious heritage in: http://www.hagiasophiablog.com/ Take good care and enjoy life as it comes....
8th April 2009

Good Stuff
THe Georgian stuff is really interesting. We have an office in Tiblisi - you should call round and tell them hi - hopefully I will b working on some resort developments on th Black Sea with them.

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