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Published: June 28th 2018
Our land border crossing from Azerbaijan into Georgia was pretty streamlined, with the exception of the 500 metres or so uphill climb through their no-man's-land with our bulky suitcases. Similar to Azerbaijan, Georgia is situated at the junction of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, and shares borders with many countries, including the Russian republics of Chechnya and North Ossetia to the north and north-east, along with Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey to the south, while the shoreline of the Black Sea forms its western border. While Georgia generally has good relationships with its neighbours, there has been an ongoing dispute with Russia over the northern border regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are now recognised by Russia as independent states. This has made these areas in effect out of bounds for tourists and we made no attempts to challenge that.
We observed a great diversity of landscapes, ranging from the snowcapped mountains of the Greater Caucasus to the north and the Lesser Caucasus to the south, valleys, lakes and forests, subtropical wetlands on the coast and semi-desert plains in the south-east. But perhaps what Georgia is best known for is its benevolent climate and fertile soil which make it an
ideal location to produce wine, which it does in spades, with over a hundred different varieties available. Add to that Georgians general love of socialising and eating, and this becomes a gourmet’s delight for the tourist and we were very happy to share that aspect of their culture on many occasions.
Georgia has recently gone through a number of years of reform and modernisation, both structurally and socially. It has made a significant effort to pursue closer ties with the West, including joining the EU on 2014. This transition to improved democracy and human rights is clearly favoured by the younger generation, and this is evident in their very hospitable approach to tourists as we encountered frequently. The Georgian Orthodox Church has also enjoyed a huge revival since the end of the Soviet era and is the most powerful religious force in the country. The church is part of the Eastern Orthodox tradition and dates back from the 320s. Georgia has a relatively high number of active church attenders and this religious base leads to quite conservative social attitudes, especially amongst older Georgians.
The capital, Tbilisi, boasts an impressive Old Town, with its winding lanes flanked by leaning
houses and old stone churches of many denominations. The very modern Peace Bridge crosses over the Mtkvari River and leads to cafes, bars, carpet shops and many small hotels, which gives the Old Town a buzzing atmosphere, especially at night. High on the hill overlooking this part of the city are the 4th century Narikala Fortress and the 21st century Presidential Palace. The main religious offerings in this area are the Metekhi Church, which occupies a rocky outcrop above the bridge of the same name and was built in the 13th century but has been reconstructed many times and the Sioni Cathedral, which was originally built in 7th century but destroyed and rebuilt in the 13th century. This cathedral has special significance to Georgians as it is home to the sacred cross of St Nino. One of the highlights was the recently added Clock Tower, in which on the hour an angel pops out of a door near the top and strikes the bell outside with a hammer.
Just a couple of hours drive north of Tbilisi is the small town of Kazbegi, which is the hub of the region's most spectacular high mountain zone in the heart of
the Greater Caucasus. It contains numerous walking, horse-riding and mountain-bike routes, and some of our fitter group members (but not me) took on the 6km uphill hike to the Tsminda Sameba Church, silhouetted on the hilltop in front of Mt Kazbek. The rest of us made our way up via four-wheel drive vehicles along a winding, pot-holed road which produced its own brand of frayed nerves. Interestingly, Kazbegi lies on the Georgian Military Highway, only about 10kms from the Russian border and there is a constant procession of huge lorries plying their trade travelling both ways across this border crossing. You would think that this would prompt the authorities to ensure they provided a decent road but, to the contrary, it was the worst road we encountered in Georgia, being dirt in parts and full of pot-holes. To add to the fun for the drivers, there is no room to queue up close to the border so just short of Kazbegi we passed a procession of over a hundred parked lorries, some of whom we were advised could wait there for a couple of days before they reached the front of the border queue.
Outside of Tbilisi, these were
some of the key attractions visited:
· Gremi Fortress, near Telavi, a brick citadel containing frescoes from the 16th century and a tower that we climbed via an internal staircase
· Alaverdi Cathedral, which was built in the 11th century and which, at 50 metres tall, was at one stage the tallest church in Georgia
· Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, a large 11th century building with an elongated cross plan and adorned with stone carving both outside and in
· Tsinandali Garden & Museum, situated on the Chavchavadze Estate, is a restored palace belonging to this family, along with a magnificent garden with many exotic plants
· Sighnaghi, a very pretty town sitting on a hilltop full of 18th and 19th century architecture, along with superb views over the Alazani valley to the Caucasus beyond
· Jvari Church, a symmetrical building of early Georgian tetraconch design, built in the 6th century and visible for miles on the hilltop overlooking Mtskheta
· Uplistsikhe, the location of an enormous cave city that at one stage housed 20,000 people, with the Uplistsulis Eklesia church at the top, a triple church basilica built in the 10th century
Ananuri Fortress, which comprises two 17th century churches, the larger of which, the Assumption Church, is covered with stone carvings and a cross on every wall
We also visited Gori, the birth place of Josef Stalin and site of the Stalin Museum alongside the house in which he spent his early days. We were given an escorted visit through the extensive museum and were speculating whether the local guide would paint Stalin as a 'great leader' or a 'bad guy' but she actually was at pains to provide a very factual account of his life story and left that conclusion to each of her audience.·
Finally, I have a trivia question for the rugby buffs. Which international team is now ranked number 13 in the world? Answer: Georgia. After almost not having heard of the game twenty years ago, they have this year defeated a number of second-tier European teams and in fact beat Tonga in the recent Pacific Islands Cup (not sure how they qualifed for this, but there again Australia competes in Eurovision!). We were advised that rugby has now overtaken soccer as the key winter game for men in Georgia.
So after here the
caravan rolls into Armenia, which from all accounts should be a simple border stop, requiring no visas and having no significant no-man's-land over which to drag our baggage.
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