Hike from Saorge

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As there was no parking around the monastery of Saorge, I couldn’t do my planned hike to Chapelle St Croix, so I parked down here at Balise 161 and took a wide track that curved around a gorge.

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It was an easy walk as the path sloped gently downwards.

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It was beautiful but definitely not a hike for summer as it faced directly south.img_20160925_120114340After about a 1/2 hour I followed the sign to Chapelle Sainte Anne which took me up a fairly steep and extremely narrow path. It was a bit overgrown but I kept following the yellow markings until I got to the  top a little breathless and more than a little sweaty.

No Chapelle Sainte Anne, but a nice shack with some shade and a fair amount of flies. I couldn’t find the path to the Chapelle Sainte Anne and was getting hot so I set about heading back to Saorge.

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The path was narrow and descended slightly. Finally I got to Balise 163 which pointed me back to Saorge.

Here is a view of Chapelle Saint Croix.

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An easy and very sunny walk brought me back to the Franciscan Monastery with this splendid view of Saorge.

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It was an easy and sunny three hours.


Mestia to Akhalksikhe

I woke up to clouds and the hint of rain in Mestia. As beautiful as the region was, I was glad I decided to head south. The guest house arranged a minibus to Zugdidi that left around 9.30 for the beautiful and scenic ride that wound around the mountains for about 3 1/2 hours..

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Arriving in Zugdidi around noon, I  immediately hopped another minibus  to Kutaisi. Two hours in a crowded bus passed slowly especially as the scenery was a monotonous spread of one small farm after another. Unlike the hardened, slim farmers in the Svaneti region, these people were uniformly obese.

Tired and hungry, I debated whether or not to overnight in Kutaisi but fortunately there was another bus to Akhalksikhe leaving almost immediately. I grabbed a Pepsi (no Coke Zero in this country) and homemade cake and boarded the old, rickety bus.

I arrived completely exhausted but the family who ran Hotel Almi greeted me like their long-lost cousin.. I checked in wearily and headed to a beautiful room with hardwood floors.

The hotel had a restaurant that conjured up a delicious dinner which I devoured in their pretty garden.

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Ushguli

When I woke this morning, the overcast sky clarified my thinking. Do a day trip to Ushguli! An overnight that involved staying at Berdia’s brother’s hostel would be too complicated. It turned out to be the right decision.

I met Jenna and her husband (the Chinese couple) down in the main square with a minibus driver who appeared at the guesthouse, presumably at the bequest of the owner. He was hoping for more passengers so we waited a while. I had a cup of tea but around 10 I pushed it.  We arranged a price (150GEL) and set out.

For about a half hour we cruised along a paved road. Then, that stopped and  we were on a potholed track that went on and on for another 2 hours. I can’t say it was incredibly scenic at first. Mostly we were winding through a series of valleys and gorges. Also it was raining off and on. At a few points I was able to take a photo or two of a village and there was certainly plenty of cascading water. And oxen.

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oxen

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Finally the vistas opened up and the first of Ushguli settlements appeared: Murqmeli. It was immediately impressive.

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Farming is done the traditional way.

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Tough life.

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Then we got off at Chazhashi.

Chazhashi

The idea was to explore and see if we could find the museum. No luck. The place was nearly deserted. We rousted a guard from his nap who pretended to be interested and then went back to sleep.

We were able to marvel at the unique Svan towers up close. These sturdy 9th-century constructions were designed to protect villagers from their enemies whether foreign or from the next village.

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Chazhashi2

We drove a little farther to Chvibiani where the driver parked at the entrance and we sat down for lunch in a local inn. The highlight of the dining room was this magnificent carved Svan “Man’s Chair”.

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Then Jenna and I set out to explore the village despite the light rain and an extremely muddy track. No matter. We were entranced. There’s just no place even remotely similar and it’s so remote! Notwithstanding the ordeal to get here and the ancient, crumbling buildings, Chvibiani was clearly the most developed village with a sprinkling of guesthouses and notional “streets”.

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Besides the towering peaks on all sides, what was there to see? Pust churches! The church with a screaming mouth.

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There were very, very few people around as we walked  to the highest village, Zhibiai and the 12th century Samaria church.

Samaria-church

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For a few brief moments, the clouds parted to enchant us with a glimpse of the beauty and strangeness of Svaneti.

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For the descent it rained steadily.

So given the rain, the mud and the uncertainties of transport, I’m glad I  didn’t try to stay a night but still it’s a magical place, not least for the unbearably dramatic backdrop of steep mountains that rose at a 90 degree angle, with cows grazing on the green carpet. Then the snow- capped peaks to top it all off. And the black-clad women, gnarly old men and farm animals everywhere. It was worth crossing Europe to see.

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Batumi to Mestia

First look at Mestia; view from balcony of Hotel Svan House. #mestia

A photo posted by Jeanne (@globaltravellerblog) on

By this point, I had learned to take taxis everywhere. They are cheap enough and the streets are too horrendous for wheeled luggage. So I ordered a cab around 8am to take me to the old bus station for a journey that I hoped would end in Mestia if all went well. There’s something exhilarating about the purposefulness of a bus station when one’s final destination is unknown. Around the dented minibuses were swarms of toothless old men, soap sellers, beggars, fruit peddlars, tired  women hauling cheap luggage and young men chatting earnestly on cellphones.

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It was an extremely bumpy ride to Zugdidi, even though the landscape was mostly flat farmland. In exactly three hours we pulled into Zugdidi which was good since this minibus was much less comfy than the Tblisi-Batumi one. I wasn’t sure whether I would stay in Zugdidi; it very much depended on on whether I could quickly catch a bus to Mestia. Fortunately the Mestia bus was right there with only a Chinese couple. The driver asked us to pay extra 10GEL each as we were only three so we could leave immediately. No problem. We stopped  briefly at a market where I bought delicious cheese and spicy bread. Then we made a roadside stop later in the pouring rain for tea and cake.

We climbed up a winding, deeply rutted road with steep cliffs on either side that I wished had  wire mesh to protect against falling rocks. The driver crossed himself three times every time we passed a church. I wonder if he was praying for safety. I was.  Eventually the rain cleared up and we could see snow-capped peaks through the clouds. The magic of the Svaneti region beckoned.

Thanks to the booking.com app, I was able to arrange a hotel on the way up. Svan House came highly recommended both by guests and by Lonely Planet. By the time we arrived around 5.30, the rain had let up a bit and the cool air was a refreshing change from Zugdidi. Mestia was cool in every way. The wide street that ran through town was lined with buildings short enough to allow views of the jagged mountains that ringed the town. And then there were of course the unique square Svaneti towers. It seemed like a backpacker’s paradise. Maybe the new Katmandu?

The owner arrived quickly and drove me up to his inn.  After settling in I left for a stroll to the town centre where I met the Chinese couple. We agreed that we should share a ride to Ushguli if at all possible.

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Back at the hotel, I fortified myself with some chacha and chatted with a German tour guide who was there with her driver. The delicious home-cooked dinner was a convivial family-style affair finishing with a flurry of calls and texts around town trying to arrange the Ushguli trip tomorrow. I went to bed optimistic about the uncertain travel arrangements but pessimistic about the uncertain weather.


Batumi Discovery

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I started the day at with breakfast on the rooftop here at the Hotel Old Town. The hotel room was a little underdecorated but any shortcomings are more than made up for on the rooftop terrace with a panoramic view of Butumi.

I decided to start my city tour my renting a bike as Batumi sprawls for miles along the Black Sea. Last night I walked and walked and seemed to make no progress. The layout is also odd with no straightforward way to get from my hotel to the rocky beach. There’s a strange muddy potholed track that links the main road with the seaside promenade.

I noticed extensive orange bike lanes so I decided that was the way to go.

Batumi bike path

A photo posted by Jeanne (@globaltravellerblog) on

I hopped on and started pedaling south. On my right was the sea with a wide beach that narrowed the further south I went. There were occasional drink stalls but few people were on the wide, pebbly beach. Perhaps the water was still cold?

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The main activity was getting the town ready for the tourist onslaught that was about to happen. There were lots of workmen hammering, drilling and assembling all the stuff that keeps strollers amused from roller coasters to food stalls and fountains.

On the land side there were a series of parks interspersed with glass towers and massive construction sites. Massive. Clearly there is some major money pouring into the town. The bike path came to an end a good 7km from where I started. I slowly pedaled back, glad I had decided to stay in the old town and not on the outskirts.

Looking for the tourist office brought me more into the part of town with stylish 19th century buildings punctuated with the occasional skyscraper.

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The tourist office staff was friendly and informed me that there was no bus to Yerevan. Armenia cancelled!

I headed back to the area near my hotel for a halal lunch, realizing that this was clearly the more working class part of town both at the time of construction and now.

Still the city was not really adding up for me.

So I decided to take the a cable car ride to the top of a nearby hill. It was a long ride and dangling over the city was slightly more nerve wracking than I had thought. The views were spectacular of course.

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Somehow I expected something like the shopping mall that tops Victoria Hill in Hong Kong but truth was that after admiring the view there wasn’t much else to do so I came down and went back to the hotel to rest.

I left again around 5.30 when the light was golden and then began to really appreciate the beauty of Batumi. It’s not really about the coast although I did like the port area with boats and fishermen. The big event was the arrival of a ship commissioned to report on the ecological condition of the Black Sea. Reporters and TV cameras lined the dock, waiting for the crew to disembark.

No, it’s really about the urban landscape. Aside from the amusement parks, there are shady parks adorned with fountains, swan ponds, and gardens.

Europe Square with statue of Medea and the Golden Fleece

Europe Square with statue of Medea and the Golden Fleece

Then, there’s the architecture. There’s not a single boring building in the whole town. With glass towers and brick buildings laced with gilt glittering in the sun, statues and ornamental balconies it is really a feast for the eye. Belle-Epoque, Art Deco, neo-Classical: it was all present and accounted for.

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The best part was Piazza. What a perfect square! I wound up having dinner at the Piazza hotel on the square. All was discreet, elegant and classy. I feasted on chicken with huckleberry sauce accompanied by an excellent wine while a jazz tape provided the perfect musical backdrop.

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