Friday, December 18, 2015

Introducing Georgia.

Tblisi.  Our two apartments are located somewhere down there :-)
(Photo by Nino Ozbetelashvili.  Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
Pat and I will arrive into Georgia via train from Baku to Tblisi, the capital city of Georgia. We'll be staying in two different apartments during our stay in the city - a few days in one located in the old city and a few days in one located in the modern city. I've probably allotted more time than necessary to see the sights in Tblisi but both Pat and I agree that it's nice to just have time to chill out.  Hopefully, there will be some nice cafes that we can do just that in.

Like its neighbor Azerbaijan, Georgia is located at the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe. It is bounded to the west by the Black Sea, to the north by Russia, to the south by Turkey and Armenia, and to the southeast by Azerbaijan.

The country was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1921 as the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic and became an independent nation shortly before the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

Since independence, the people of Georgia have endured periods of civil war and unrest as well as violence related to the independence aspirations of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Both regions had close ties with Russia, whose troops had operated there since the early 1990s. In 2008 Moscow formally recognised the two territories as independent states, following an armed conflict between Georgia and Russia that grew out of clashes between Georgia and Russian-backed rebels in South Ossetia.

Russia has effectively controlled the two breakaway regions since then, and both are heavily dependent on Russian aid.

Moves by Russia to formalize its ties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia in late 2014 and early 2015 triggered fears in Georgia that Moscow was seeking to annex the two statelets.  We won't be going to either of these two statelets so we'll be safe from any violence that might erupt as a result of the conflict.

Georgia is a representative democratic semi-presidential republic, with the President as the head of state, and Prime Minister as the head of government.

Today about 85% the population in Georgia are Orthodox Christians with the vast majority being members of the Georgian Orthodox Church.  Muslims make up about 10% of the population and there is also a sizable Jewish community in Tbilisi.

Georgia has a mix of rural charm and city modernity, as well as cultural influences from Turkey, Russia, Persia, Central Asia and Europ.  I've allotted 9 days for our trip to Georgia.  I hope this is enough time to at least cover the major highlights of the country.

Pat and I will explore Tblisi on our own but I have engaged the services of a local guide to take us to places outside of Tblisi.  For now, it's a starting itinerary suggested by the guide but depending on our interests, we could make adjustments as I have built in that flexibility into our itinerary.

Our Trip Map

Here are some of the places that I hope we'll be able to visit on our trip through Georgia.

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, down the street.
(Photo by Aleksey Muhranoff.  Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
Mtskheta is a place that I can barely spell the name of let alone pronounce.  I will have to learn the proper pronunciation when I get to Georgia.  Mtskheta is located just about 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of Tblisi.  It is one of the oldest cities in Georgia.  From the 3rd century BC to the 5th century AD, Mtskheta was the capital of the eastern Georgian kingdom of Iberia.  Mtskheta has been Georgia’s spiritual heart since Christianity was established here in about 327 AD.

Due to its historical significance and several cultural monuments, the "Historical Monuments of Mtskheta" were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 though the same sites were recently placed on UNESCO's List of World Heritage in Danger, citing "serious deterioration of the stonework and frescoes" as the main threat to long-term preservation.

No doubt, we will be visiting Mtskheta's most famous church - Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (built in the 11th century) as well as Jvari Monastery (built in the 6th century).  There are also some important ruins located on the outskirts of town that no doubt are worth seeing as well.

11th-century Bagrati Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Kutaisi.
(Photo by Brave Lemming - . Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
Kutaisi is the legislative capital of Georgia, and is the second largest city, after Tbilisi.

Georgia’s parliament was transferred from Tbilisi to brand new quarters in Kutaisi in 2012.  Since then, the city has been undergoing revitalization after decades of post-Soviet decline - streets, buildings, parks, and monuments are being restored and the city is much safer. 

Kutaisi is built around the Rioni River, with the city center, first developed in the 17th century, on its left bank. To its north, the right bank rises up to an older area where the landmark Bagrati Cathedral overlooks the city.  No doubt, we will visit the Cathedral as well as the Gelati Monastery which like the cathedral is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is also home to several museums. 

Mestia.  (Photo by deguonis.  Licensed under CC BY 2.0  via Wikimedia Commons.)
Mestia is a small highland town in located in the Caucasus Mountains in northwest Georgia; it is the  regional capital of the Svaneti region.  The Svaneti region is home to the Svans, a cultural and linguistic subgroup of the Georgians.  The entire region is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site as it is home to a number of medieval monuments, such as churches and forts.

We are going to the Caucasus to see the Caucasus Mountains so I am planning as many opportunities as I can for us to be in the mountain region.  I just hope that the weather is warm enough that we can go to this region.  If there's too much snow on the ground for us to safely reach these small highland towns, we'll have to change our itinerary.

Mestia is made up of three villages following the Mulkhra River, with a single main street lying through the entire town. Most guest houses, hotels and restaurants are along this main street.  I would love it if we could spend the night here....in a small, local guesthouse.

Mount Shkhara. (Photo by Aleksey Muhranoff from travelgeorgia.ru
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
Ushguli is a community of four mountain villages located at the head of the Enguri gorge in the Upper Svaneti, Georgia:  Zhibiani, Chvibiani (also spelled Chubiani), Chazhashi (also spelled Chajashi), and Murqmeli.  Situated at an elevation of 2,100 meters (6,900 feet), Ushguli holds the distinction being the highest continually inhabited settlement.in Europe.  While the Ushguli villages contain buildings that are part of the UNESCO Heritage site of Upper Svaneti, the main attraction in Ushguli is the Shkhara Glacier, named after the mountain of the same name.  From Mestia, we can do an 8 kilometer hike, each way over mostly flat, easy trail to get to the glacier but it's unlikely we'll be going on foot.  If the weather allows us to go, we'll get as close as we can by car and if the rest of the way is an easy walk, we'll do it.  Otherwise, we'll just take in views of the snow capped mountain peaks.

Apparently, a  visit to Ushguli's Ethnography museum is well worth the small fee that the local children will ask for admission. Housed in a preserved Svan house, the museum contains artifacts ranging in age from the long history of the Svaneti regions. The local children will provide rehearsed description of the artifacts in passable English.  I would pay them just to listen to them practice their English :-)

Zugdidi is a city in the Western Georgian historical province of Samegrelo.  Zugdidi is not exactly a tourist hotspot but you have to pass through it to arrive at Mestia and it does have a few things to see so it would be worth stopping in.

Dadiani Palace Museum.
Photo by Zugdidi Municipal City Hall. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Highlight landmarks of the city are the Queen's Palace and Niko's Palace (collectively referred to as the now the Dadiani Palace Museum).  Supposedly, Napoleon’s death mask is on display in the Dadiani Palace Museum but its main treasure is a Holy Robe of Mary the mother of Jesus.  Other attractions in the city include the Cathedral of the Blachernae Icon of the Mother of God, Mantskhvar-kari Church, and the Queen's Garden, a botanical park.

Gori is a city in eastern Georgia that is principally known as the birthplace of Joseph Vissarionovich Jughashvili, better known as Joseph Stalin.  Unlike the majority of Georgia, Gori is full of people who still revere their hometown boy who made such an indelible mark on human history.  Not surprisingly, the main attractions within the city are monuments to Stalin and they are all located on or nearby the main square along Stalin Ave.  Not sure I care to spend all that much time looking at all things Stalin.  Thankfully, there are other highlights in Gori worth visiting.

On a hill, overlooking the city, is its citadel - Gori Fortress.  On another hill stands the 18th century St. George's Church of Gorijvari, a popular place of pilgrimage.

Uplistsikhe.
(Photo by EvgenyGenkin. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
Uplistsikhe (The Fortress of the Lord) is located on the outskirts of Gori.  Uplistsikhe was founded in the Bronze Age, around 1000 BC, and carved out of rock.  Before the introduction of Christianity in the 4th century AD, Uplistsikhe was a major regional hub of Caucasian pagan worship. After Saint Nino converted King Mirian II of Iberia, the pagan temples of Uplistsikhe were sacked and the city went into long-term decline. Its decline was hastened by devastation at the hands of the Mongols in the 12th century, although it remained inhabited, serving as a stop along the Silk Road until the 15th century.

Uplistsikhe suffered long years of neglect and vandalism and is currently undergoing significant restoration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Highlights not to be missed include a Hellenistic amphitheatre overlooking the Mtkvari river where residents of Uplistsikhe once enjoyed Greek-style performances, a functioning 9th century church built atop the ruins of an ancient pagan temple dedicated to the Caucasian sun god, and a fun cave tunnel leading out of the city to the riverside.

Bodbe Monastery (Photo by Kober.  Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.)
Sighnaghi is a town in Georgia's easternmost region of Kakheti and is one of the country's smallest towns.  Sighnaghi's economy is dominated by the production of wine, traditional carpets and Georgian traditional food Mcvadi.   We'll be in Georgia's wine region when we arrive in to Sighnaghi.  Pat will be very happy :-)

Sighnaghi and its environs are home to several historical and cultural monuments and has been specifically protected by the State since 1975. The town is walled with the remnants of 18th-century fortifications. There are two Georgian Orthodox churches in the town itself - one dedicated to St. George and the other to St. Stephen.

Bodbe Monastery is a venerated a Georgian Orthodox monastic complex and the seat of the Bishops of Bodbe.  Originally built in the 9th century, the monastery has been significantly remodeled, especially in the 17th century. The monastery now functions as a nunnery and is one of the major pilgrimage sites in Georgia, due to its association with St. Nino, the 4th-century female evangelist of Georgians, whose is buried there and whose relics are enshrined there.  The cathedral is constructed wholly of brick, uncommon in ninth-century Georgia. The interior is adorned with nineteenth-century murals and fragments of paintings dating from the twelfth to seventeenth centuries.

Kvareli and Tsinandali are two towns in Georgia's Kakheti region which is the wine wine region of the country.  Kvareli also happens to be the birthplace of the 19th-century aristocratic Georgian poet and author Ilia Chavchavadze whose estate and its historic winery is located in Tsinandali.  The estate has been preserved as a museum.   Yes, we'll go to the museum but I have a feeling that will be overshadowed by trips to vineyards and wineries as the region around Kvareli is famous for producing Georgia’s famous semi-sweet red wine Kindzmarauli, though Chavchavadze's winery in Tsinandali produces a dry white wine.

Wine production in Georgia is very long-standing with a history going back some 7000 years. Its production is also associated with the arrival of Christianity in the 4th  century AD. Georgia produces over 50 different types of wine and is home to over 500 grape varieties. Pat absolutely loves her wine so we must visit as many vineyards and wineries as we want to go to and of course, she will sample not only her share but most likely mine as well :-)

The more I read about Georgia, the more I excited I am about going.  I just hope we can cram everything in in the short time we'll be there!