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.

batumi-busstop

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.

mestia-centre

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?

batumi-beach

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.

batumi-urbanscape

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.

batumi-view

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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.

batumi-building

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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Tbilisi to Batumi

batumi-port

Batumi Port

At the Hotel Classic I asked for a taxi to take me to the Batumi marshrutka. We got to station square before 10 and I immediately boarded a comfortable minibus with cushioned seats. Then I waited. And waited. And waited. No one else got on. I knew he wasn’t going to make a 7 hour trip only with me. Finally we left at 10.30 and drove to another place looking for passengers, then another. Finally about a half dozen people boarded and we were off.

Mostly the trip was relaxing. The sun was shining and the driver chose a varied entertainment program that included Georgian music, international pop,  music videos and one strange comedy segment that seemed to be a Georgian version of Archie Bunker screaming at his hapless son and daughter in law. The other passengers chuckled. I liked the videos that seemed to show actual weddings where the men were twirling and leaping in  traditional Georgian wedding dances.

Outside, we followed the river as it wove through a flat valley backed by verdant peaks. One house followed another, always with  two stories,  big enough for an extended family and with a plot of land. We hurtled past vegetable gardens, orchards, chickens  and lots of cows. The cows have the run of the place here, loitering on railroad tracks, ambling down the road, nibbling around fences, snoozing in yards. They seem to wander around without any sort of human direction, assistance or discipline. Free range cows!

We passed clay jug territory where a procession of stalls displayed enough clay containers of all sizes to outfit the entire country in jugs and pots.

There was also an endless line of  roadside stalls displaying enticing tomatoes,  cucumbers and those little green plums that Georgians claim are good for the digestion..

We stopped only once for lunch where I had some sort of spicy stew. There were no pit stops, only cigarette stops. Pro tip: never board a marshrutka with a full bladder.

Oh there was another stop. There was  that problem where I was afraid the minibus broke down but actually it was out of oil.

So we waited about 15 minutes until a taxi delivered a bottle of oil.

We finally arrived in Batumi near 6 and I checked into the aptly named Hotel Old Town. Although totally knackered I managed a stroll around town a little and to the port.

I grabbed a bite to eat in the old town, then headed up to the hotel’s new rooftop terrace for a look. Very nice.

Night view of Batumi from my hotel roof terrace. Ready to start exploring! #batumi

A photo posted by Jeanne (@globaltravellerblog) on

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Gori and Uplistsikhe

Uplist

Today’s excursion was to the cave city of Uplistsikhe and Stalin’s birthplace at Gori.

I headed to minibus station around 9.30 to hop a bus for the one-hour trip. The minibuses left from an obscure part of the Didubi station but I just kept asking people “Gori?” “Gori?” and eventually found it.

The minibus dropped me off at the friendly tourist office where I got a map and decided to take a taxi to Uplistsikhe rather than another marshrutka as the forecast was not good for the afternoon. She told me to pay about 30GEL (€14) return which I did.

Passing along the river on the way to the site, I noticed that the water was quite high, like all the rivers I passed on this trip. It’s not surprising given how frequently it’s been raining.

Walking up the road to the site, I was grateful for the cloudy skies as it would have been a long, hot walk in summer.

Now this site is not Agrigento even though it also dates back to around the same time. Uplistsikhe was a pre- Christian city filled with temples, built between the 6th century BC and the 1st century AD. The soft stone hasn’t stood up well to the wind and rain which have clearly battered down the original structures. Still, it was fascinating.

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I was not alone! Clearly this is a spot for school field trips. The kids were in high energy mode, leaping off rocks and running through caves.

In this pre-Christian temple, known as the Hall of Queen Tamar, the stone roof has been carved to resemble wooden beams.

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A similar effect is visible here in the “Throne Hall”

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Walkways made it easy and safe to climb around and view the complex from different angles.

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 My favorite was Blackberry Hall. Curiously, it was set apart from the walkways despite its striking exterior.

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Was this a place for human sacrifice? The walls inside were charred black and there were  four steps leading up to a back room which was even blacker. Very weird.

Leaving the complex was through a tunnel that led down to the bottom of the cliff. Along the way I wondered why this site has not made it onto UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.

The sky was darkening as I wandered around looking for my taxi. I finally found it and hopped inside just as fat raindrops started to fall. By the time we got back to Gori the sky opened up. The tourist office pointed me to a place a few yards away. I peeked in and saw it was filled with a half dozen chubby red faced guys. (Pretty much everybody over the age of 30 is chubby). Thunder, lightening , rain, hail. While I was trying to decide what to do, one of the guys ushered me inside and to a table. Immediately they set me up with a plate of khinkali , some home brewed beer and shots of chacha, Georgia’s spirit of choice. They were all a bit tipsy and made a great fuss over me trying to get me to drink more and more.

gori

Selfies, Facebook exchanges, lavish complements, more beer (quite good) and some insanely good spiced potato wedges followed until I finally stumbled out to look for the Stalin museum in the poring rain.

The museum was in a majestic building bit didn’t amount to much in the end. I walked the wide streets of Gori back to the minibus station. There were few cars, fewer people and some shops. Rain continued to pour as I made my way back to the hotel for the night.

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Mtskheta and Jvari

Mtskheta

Mtskheta

I left the unloved Hotel Delisi this morning. Curious that the departure breakfast was the worst, probably as a punishment: cold pasta, salad, stale bread, hot-dog. I took a taxi over to the Hotel Classic which was much better located near to Rustaveli.

I left my luggage and headed off to find a marshrutka to Mtskheta with fingers crossed that the weather would hold despite the forecast. Took the metro to Dududi minibus station and was welcomed by a cloudburst. It lifted after a quarter hour and I hopped aboard the minibus to Mtskheta, the birthplace of Christianity in Georgia.

UNESCO-protected Mtskheta is stunningly set at the confluence of two rivers with mountains rising in the distance.

The highlight is the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral dating from the 11th century.

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Unlike in France where the most celebrated cathedrals are filled almost exclusively with tourists, Svetitskhoveli was the Grand Central Station of Orthodox Christians. There were groups of adults, of kids, couples and more men than you usually see worshipping in Catholic churches. There was a lot of contemplating and kissing of icons. Priests strolled the aisles like rock stars dispensing blessings and accepting hand-kisses.

I felt awkward as I approached realizing I had neither skirt nor head scarf. Fortunately there were plenty of women without skirts and there were a pile of scarves outside the entrance. There was a lot to look at inside including the tombs of several Georgian monarchs. I noticed that the icons are somber and the frames are simple unlike ornate frames in Catholic churches. Here, the emphasis is on the face, always somber, almost severe, and ethereal.

Christ’s robe is supposed to lie beneath the central nave. Dunno about that but the frescoes were extraordinary.

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After visiting the cathedral I ducked in a local eatery for katchapuri and grilled eggplant with walnut sauce which I liked and stewed mushrooms which I didn’t. I was debating whether to spring for the cab ride up to Jvari church perched precariously on a high hill. As the place where the Georgian King Mirian converted to Christianity in the 4th century, it is considered the holiest of Georgian sites.

In the end I did pay the 15GEL.The church itself is small and simple, beautiful but without much to see.

Jvari church

Jvari church

Truth told the church more impressive when gazing up at it but the views made it worth the visit

jvari-view

On the minibus back I fell into conversation with a Georgian guy living in Spain and back for a holiday. “Conversation” meant me trying to dredge up my Spanish to understand the political troubles that caused his family to flee the country.

We arrived back in Tbilisi late afternoon under threatening skies and wandered around looking for a cafe to drink a Coke. I hate Coke but there’s no Coke Light or Coke Zero anywhere to be found. We discussed a possible plan to head up to Ushguli where his brother has a hostel but I was leary of the weather.

By this point in the trip I was tired, cranky and glad to relax in my large, comfortable room at the Hotel Classic.

hotel-classic

As it thundered outside, I spent the evening trying to decide how I should arrange my itinerary to avoid the rain and storms pelting away at Georgia..

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