We entered Georgia, the second country of our 2011 Caucasus Tour from Azerbaijan in the Kakheti region of eastern Georgia. Our travel plan would take us trough the whole country and have us spend time in the Caucasus mountains near Russia, Stalins birth town Gori, the Black Sea coast and of course the capital Tbilisi. Georgia offers good food and wine, a wide variety of landscapes, many interesting tourist sides and a great capital to hang out!
"When the God divided the Earth among the people, Georgians were late because of their traditional feast, and by the moment of their arrival the entire world had already been divided. When the God asked them to what they had drunk Georgians just answered:"To you, oh Lord, to us, to peace". The God liked their answer. So told them that although all lands were taken, he reserved a small plot for himself and now he decided to give it to Georgians. According to the God the land was incomparable in its beauty and all people would admire and cherish it forever "
An old Georgian myth
Georgia was the country where we would spend most time compared to Armenia and Azerbaijan, we had planned an ambitious travel schedule visiting many different places in every part of the country. We entered Georgia on the Lagodekhi border crossing from Azerbaijan in the Kakheti region famous for it’s good wines. From Kakheti we travelled to high Caucasus Mountains via the famous Georgian Military Highway. We had to go around the break away area of South Ossetia to get to Gori, the birth place of Joseph Stalin. From Gori we moved on to Kutaisi and then the Black Sea beach resort Batumi. We ended our Georgian tour in the capital Tbilisi before we would move on to Armenia. We did not manage to include the Historic and remote Svaneti region in our tour, so we have a good reason to revisit Georgia in the future!
The first thing that we noticed when driving into Kakheti was the relative poverty compared to Azerbaijan. The valley of Kakheti is a beautiful area with vineyards against the backdrop of the Caucasus Mountains. Kakheti is the most famous wine region of Georgia, one of the oldest wine producing countries in the world. Tourists can visit a wine houses to taste the local wines with some good food like Khachapuri, Olives, Badrijan Nigzit, Sulguni cheese and Mchadi corn bread. Another local speciality is Chacha, A Wodka like liqueor distilled from grapes.
The main city of Kakheti is Telavi a sleepy town where not much seems to be happening. The city centre includes some interesting Soviet architecture including the State Drama Theatre, Hotel Kakheti and a familiar looking 1950s Stalinist Building. The Batonis Tsikhe fortress with a giant statue of King Erekele II is the main historic site in the centre. The most popular tourist destination in Kakheti is Sighnaghi, a beautiful walled town build on a hilltop.
Kakheti boosts many interesting historic sides including the 16th century Gremi Castle, the 6th century Alaverdi Monastery, the 9th century Monastery of St. Nino and the 16th century Akhali Shuamta Monastery. Religious places in Kakheti and Georgia in general are often recently restored with beautiful religious frescos and other works of art.
The Georgian Military Highway
The Georgian Military Highway is the historic road trough the Caucasus Mountains that connects Georgia with Russia. It already exists since antiquity and was developed in its current form by the Russian Army in 1799. Our destination was Kazbegi close to the Russian border, the drive trough the mountains is truly spectacular with great views along the route. One interesting place on the way is a graveyard for German prisoners of war who died while working on the road during the 1950s.
Close to the Russian border we made a stop at the Russo Georgian Friendship Monument; build during Soviet times to cement the good relations between Russia and Georgia. The Monument depicts scenes from the Bolshevik Revolution taking place in both Georgia and Russia. The also functions as a lookout point with great views over the Caucasus Mountains.
Our ultimate destination in the Higher Caucasus Mountains was Mount Kazbegi close to the Russian border and South Ossetia. The main cultural landmark in Kazbegi is the Gergeti Trinity Church, halfway the mountain. The Trinity Church with Kazbegi is probably the most famous image from Georgia that keeps some photographers in the area for days to shoot the perfect picture. The church can be reached with 4x4 cars or by foot from the town Stepantsminda that was called Kazbegi during the Soviet period. Our hotel was in the ski resort Gudauri that is a busy place in winter time and a good starting point for hiking in the summer.
From Kazbegi we had to take the Military Highway back to drive to Gori, since the border with South Ossetia is now closed. The Military Highway runs between the Border and Tbilisi passing Mtskheta on th way. Mtskheta is one of the oldest cities in Georgia, the seat of the Georgian Orthodox church and was the capital until the 6th century. The most famous landmarks of Mtskheta are the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral and the Jvari Monastery. On the road from Kazbegi to Mtskheta we made a stop at the Ananuri Fortress a beuatifull stcuture on the Zhinvali reservoir.
Most places we had visited in Georgia up till Gori were interesting but mainly for its ancient history with a focus on churches and monasteries. Gori came just in time to bring Soviet and even 21st century history in the mix, and how! Gori is the birth place of Joseph Stalin and one of the few places spared from Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization program in the late 1950s. The Gori Stalin Museum is a shrine to Stalin and a must see for everybody interested in Soviet History. The museum has been untouched for decades and walking around there feels like travelling back in time. Tourist should go quickly, the Georgian government has already decided to change the museum in a Soviet Atrocities museum. Anti Russian sentiments have already led to the removal of the Stalin statue from the Gori main square.
Not only Soviet but also recent history is very much alive in Gori. The town was occupied by the Russian during the 2008 war over South Ossetia and later shelled from the mountains with cluster bombs. A series of bombs exploded on the Main Square in front of the Town hall and the giant Stalin statue. The Dutch journalist Stan Storimans dies together with twelve civilians. The Russian denied to have used illegal cluster bombs, despite conclusive evidence. The impact of the bombs can still be seen on the service of the square. Another testament to the 2008 War was the Tserovani refugee camp that we passed on the road from Tbilisi to Gori. Thousands of Georgians who fled South Ossetia live here in temporary houses. We found out that the war with Russia is a big open wound in Georgia and can only hope that things will turn for the better in the future.
The next major stop of our journey would be Kutaisi, the second larges city in Georgia and the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Colchis. Colchis is famous as the destination of the legendary journey of Jason and the Argonauts, in their quest to find the Golden Fleece. Kutaisi made the news in 2009 when President Saakashvili had a Soviet World War II memorial demolished against the will of the local people. So much dynamite was used that the exploding concrete destroyed houses, wounded people and even killed a woman. Kutaisi boosts interesting Soviet architecture and industrial complexes. We stayed in a guesthouse in the hills, our room was furnished with traditional Soviet furniture including an Belarus piano. The tourist highlight of Kutaisi is the Gelati Monetary, probably on of the nicest religious buildings in Georgia.
We included Batumi in our travel schedule for some relax time on the beach. Batumi was a famous Black Sea resort during the Soviet period, and is still a popular holiday destination today. The first thing that we noticed on the way to Batumi is that the landscape changes from a dry hills to subtropical. We hoped to find a Soviet Holiday resort in decline like we did in Yalta a couple of years earlier. Large investments have changed Batumi in a modern and relatively expensive Sea Side town however, largely destroying its Soviet charm. We still enjoyed the cobble stone beaches and some swimming in the Black Sea.
Stalin lived in Batumi for a couple of weeks during the revolution; his House was changed in a museum but closed during our visit. Interesting was a new construction projects in a building style that seems to be a continuation of Stalinist architecture. One would envision that Soviet cities would have a lot of those buildings if Stalinism still would be here today. On of the most interesting buildings from the Soviet period is the Port Terminal from where Hydrofoils depart to Turkey, Russia and Abkhazia. The Batumi Botanical Garden is a great place to take a walk and enjoy beautiful fauna form the five continents. Gonio Fortress 15km from Batumi was one of the outposts of the Roman Empire and includes a small museum.
The last place of our tour in Georgia was Tbilisi, we had great expectations of the Georgian capital and were certainly not disappointed. Tbilisi is situated in a valley on the banks of the Kura River and offers a mix of medieval, classical, and Soviet structures. Local and National museums offer rich collections of historic artefacts and works of art. We spend three days in Tbilisi mostly exploring the city by foot and metro, ending the day in Restaurant Kopala overlooking the city.
Georgia under president Saakashvili is doing its best to wipe out Soviet history fast and furious to be replaced by grotesque and expensive prestige objects like the new Presidential Palace, Peace Bridge and Holy Trinity Cathedral. The Soviets constructed a lot of memorable structures in Tbilisi so there is still plenty to see. Exploring Tbilisi can mostly be done by foot, combined with the Metro to move to a different area. A good place to start is Freedom Square, called Lenin Square during Soviet times. The Museum of Fine Arts is located on the Square and interesting books are for sale inn the under passages below the square.
Rustaveli Avenue, the main street of Tbilisi starts at Freedom Square and boasts many Soviet buildings but also shops café’s and hotels. Rustaveli Cinema is building from the Stalin period decorated with Socialist Realist sculptures. The Tbilisi Museum of Marxism and Leninism if currently being reconstructed by a large Hotel chain, however, it seems that will beautiful Soviet decorations on the front of the building will remain in place. The government House of the Georgian SSR still functions, the Soviet statues in front of the building and the Soviet coat of arms on the facade have been removed. The Georgian SSR Academy of Science is a classical Stalinist building where the Soviet star is not yet removed from the tower. Behind the Academy is the beautifully decorated station of the Funicular dating to the early 1950s.
Rustaveli Avenue leads to Rose Revolution Square called Revolution Square during the Soviet period. Revolution Square was constructed in 1983 and is a prime example of 1980 Soviet architecture with concrete as the primary construction material that most people find ugly (not Comtourist, we love it). The Square used to feature a giant monument with arches and a Lenin Bust in the middle. An under passage contained a shopping centre, that is now in full decay, providing a living space for homeless people and a playground for the local kids. The Post Office is a classic 1980s building, Hotel Iveria used to be a great looking place and is now degraded to a cheap looking hotel building, shame on you Radisson!
Many more interesting places are situated North from Rose Revolution Square. The Concert Hall is a building from 1971 with a characteristic female statue in front. The Tbilisi Circus is a round building that can be found in most Soviet cities and towns. The circus is located on a hill that gives a great overview of the city. The Laguna Vere swimming pool is situated near the Circus and is a classical structure from the Soviet days. Olympic athletes trained in the pool and it is still a popular place for the locals in the summer. The Soviet era Sports Palace is a bid further away but near a Metro station.
Tbilisi boosts many more interesting Soviet structures, we will write an article on this soon. The two buildings most notable are the Ministry of Transportation and the Wedding Palace. Both buildings are world famous and top 10 material for icons of Soviet architecture. The Ministry of Highway Construction of the Georgian SSR was finished in 1975 and is located on the banks of the river Kura. It is now owned by the Bank of Georgia, we have not been inside but fear that the interior is ruined during resent renovation. The Wedding Palace was constructed in 1984 and is now the home of a local oligarch. Another building that stands out is the former building of the Central Committee of the Communist Party from 1980. This building is located on the former Dzerzhinsky Street (named after the founder ok the KGB) and is a classic example of Orwellian architecture.
Most tourist will not come to Tbilisi for its Soviet heritage but rather for the classical and Ancient highlights of the city. Tbilisi has plenty to offer in that department, it truly is a beautifully city. Most famous are the houses build on top of the cliffs of the Kura River. Many houses of the Old Town have fallen in decay, however, the area did not lose it charm. The Abanotubani Bathhouse is a beautiful building with a decorated mosaic front, tourist can still go for a bath in the bathhouse. The Metekhi cliff with the Metekhi Church and the equestrian statue of Georgian King Vakhtang Gorgasali is another famous landmark.
Marneuli Air Base
Our stay in Georgia was over and it was time to head for Armenia. The trip to the border was pretty uneventful until we passed the town of Marneuli. We spotted a MiG-15 monument and asked our driver to stop for a photo. The monument was actually located on the terrain of the Marneuli Air Base that was heavily bombed by the Russians in 2008. We later saw a couple of Hangars with SU-25 Ground Attack aircraft parked outside. We decided not to shoot any photos since we did not want to risk being arrested for spying.
Where we didn’t go
We spend most time of our Caucasus journey in Georgia, however, we were not able to visit Svanetti, according to many the most beautiful part of Georgia. Svanetti is known for its architectural treasures and picturesque landscapes. Most famous are the groups of Svanetion towers erected between the 9th and 12th century. We did not manage to include Svanetti in our schedule since it can only be reached with four wheel drive cars and requires a couple of days that we did not have. There is no doubt that we want to come back to Georgia, in order to spend some quit time and to do some hiking in beautiful Svanetti.