Thursday, April 14, 2016

Our First Full Day in Georgia.

Houses in the small town of Sighnaghi, overlooking the Alazani Valley below.

I was up well before my alarm was set to go off at 8a. Today, we begin our sightseeing in Georgia and I think I was much too excited to sleep!  I stayed in bed until I heard Pat's alarm go off and then it was time to get ready for the day.

My bed.  Modest, simple but comfortable.

The living room.  Just a couch, a small chair and the coffee table.  WiFi was spotty at best :-(

Our breakfast was tea and cheese bread we bought at the bakery yesterday.  We simply reheated the bread in a frying pan, on the stove as we didn't have either an oven or a microwave.  We are resourceful :-)

Breakfast!

Inga had arranged for a guide to take us around as she was not able to.  Salome greeted us outside the door at promptly at 9a.  On first impression, I immediately noticed her messy head of red, curly hair.  She had on jeans and a jeans jacket.  She was young (late 20's) and I thought she looked adorable.  She gave us a big smile and I though she came across as very friendly and bubbly.  I immediately thought we would all get along.  Shalva was parking the car but he soon appeared as well.  We all headed back to the car and then got on the road.  On our way out of town, Salome gave us a few facts about Tbilisi and pointed out a few landmarks along the way.   She also briefed us on our itinerary for the day - visits to the monastery at Bodbe,  the small town of Sighnaghi, a winery and Tsinandali,.  It would be a full day of sightseeing!

In the distance is the Wedding Palace, built in 1984 as a wedding venue.


Soviet era housing.  Ugly but functional.

We made one quick pit stop at a local convenience store to pick up bottled water and a box of matches.  We needed them to light the stove in our apartment.


Salome was really intent on educating us about all things Georgian - history, culture, politics, geography.  While I greatly appreciated her efforts, I have to admit that for the most part, it went in one ear and out the other.  Instead, I looked out the window at the world that we were traveling through.  Georgia looks nothing like Azerbaijan.  The landscape is more rolling hills and much greener.


The area of Georgia we visited today is nestled in the country's wine growing region.  We were barely out of the city when we spotted the first set of grape vines. 


The next stop was at outside the small village of Manavi - the village that Shalva grew up in.  I  had noticed the roadside vendors selling churchkela and we decided to stop so I could get some.  Shalva pulled the car over when he spotted a woman, from his home village, that he knew.

Lace curtains protect the churchkela from road dust.

The classic version.  Grape juice and walnuts.

Shalva's neighbor decided he needed a churchkela for the road :-)

I ended up not buying any churchkela here as there would be more opportunities to do so later in the day.  We continued our road trip through the wine country.  One day, on our trip, the sun will come out.  That is my wish.


Unlike the countryside in Azerbaijan which was pretty much desert, it's lush and green in Georgia.


As with so many of our road trips, we passed through many a village.


Our next stop was  Bodbe Monastery.  Shalva parked the car in the lot and as I got out I noticed the tour bus.  My heart sank a little.  I have gotten so spoiled with traveling to places where Pat and I are the only people walking about the place.  I just hoped they are a well behaved bunch of tourists.

Bodbe Monastery is now a working 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, who is entombed here and whose relics are shrined here.

As described in Wikipedia:
"According to most widely traditional accounts, she belonged to a Greek-speaking Roman family from Kolastra, Cappadocia, was a relative of Saint George, and came to Georgia (ancient Iberia) from Constantinople. Other sources claim she was from Rome, Jerusalem or Gaul (modern France). According to legend, she performed miraculous healings and converted the Georgian queen, Nana, and eventually the pagan king Mirian III of Iberia, who, lost in darkness and blinded on a hunting trip, found his way only after he prayed to "Nino’s God". Mirian declared Christianity the official religion (c. 327) and Nino continued her missionary activities among Georgians until her death."

St. Nino is one of the most venerated saints of the Georgian Orthodox Church and her attribute, a grapevine cross, is a symbol of Georgian Christianity.

Bodbe Monastery was originally built in the 9th century but it has been significantly remodeled, especially in the 17th century.   We were not allowed to take photos inside the small chapel which was constructed of stone and decorated with icons.

Entrance to Bodbe Monastery.

A free-standing three-storey bell-tower was erected between 1862 and 1885.

Main path leading to the center of the monastery complex.

Another view of the bell tower.


I loved the carved doors.  Such wonderful detail.

The church built between the 9th and 11th centuries and restored between the 17th and 19th centuries.


Detail of the arched entry.

We briefly stepped inside the small chapel.  It was filled with painted walls and ceiling, icons and candles.

To the right of the entrance was a small room where a few of the relics of St. Nino are enshrined.  By now, we were submerged into a larger group of tourists and so we had to line up to enter the room.  I opted to hang back and let Pat go in. 

Entrance to the small chapel.

The grass is the image of the grapevine cross - the symbol of St. Nino.

Salome leaving the chapel.  We all donned headscarves but only Salome remembered to bring
along one that she could wrap around her waist as a skirt.

A view of the bell tower and chapel from the lawn in front of the church.

It's springtime in Georgia.  The flower beds are all in bloom!

Chapel in the foreground, bell tower in the background.
The grounds around the complex were beautifully landscaped and very well tended to.  Strolling about the grounds was like walking through a lovely botanical garden.

 


The nuns have their own garden.

The monastery complex is perched on a plateau overlooking the Alazani Valley.


Shalva admiring the nunnery's gate keeper, a very large but friendly Georgian sheepdog :-)

Georgian sheepdogs have their ears and tails clipped when they're puppies.  This is to prevent more
ferocious animals (i.e., foxes) from biting them off when they're fighting.
This guy was physically a very BIG dog but he was a sweetie.

I enjoyed our brief visit to Bodbe Monastery.  The tour bus of people turned out to be a non issue.  With the exception of our few minutes inside the chapel where we had to endure some crowding, the rest of the time I was fine.  The complex is large enough that I really didn't feel bothered with having a lot of other folks around me.  Yes, I am spoiled!

Back in the car, we didn't drive long before we made another stop. This was to catch a nice view of the small town of Signaghi.

Nice spot to park the car.

Third stop. Roadside photo op of Sighnaghi which was the place we would be visiting next.  I immediately recognized the view from my pre-trip research. 

I loved the terracotta roofs.  They add an old world charm to the place.

The town overlooks the Alazani Valley which we could also see from our vantage point.  It's times like this that I kick myself for not  having taken a panoramic photo of the view.  Oh well.  Here are the photos I did take.


Onward to Sighnaghi. Shalva dropped us off at the top of the Main Street and then drove off to find parking.

My first impression of Sighnaghi was that it was a charming place filled with old houses built of brick, lovely wooden balconies and cobblestone streets.  The cobblestones were a bit of a challenge for me to walk downhill on with my cast but I walked carefully and managed just fine.


We walked alongside Salome to Erekle II Square, named after the Georgian king who developed the town in the 18th century, partly as a refuge for the area’s populace against Lezgin and Persian attacks.

Copper rendition of a painting titled, "Healer on a Donkey" by Niko Pirosmani.

Erekle II Square.  In the center is a fountain topped with an amphora typically used in producing Georgian wine.

Standing in Erekle II Square, looking back towards the hill we had just walked down from.

From Erekle II Square,  we walked up the hill to the main square where there was a city hall and performance hall.


I stopped to look at this sign board.  Hmm.....have to try some of these Georgian specialties :-)

City Hall with the clock tower.

Performance Hall.  At least, I think it's the performance hall.

A few souvenir vendors were set up across the way from City Hall.  Of course, we had to check them out as it was our first time seeing handicrafts from Georgia.  My eyes immediately fell on the felt dolls.  So darn cute but I was not yet ready to buy anything.


Adjacent to where City Hall stood is a small park that is home to Sighnaghi's World War II memorial.



The wall was built sometime during the Soviet era and even though it's intended to commemorate a very serious chapter in the town's history, I thought it had a slightly folksy look and feel to it.  It's serious but charming at the same time.


Salome pointed out to us how all the names on the wall ended in the same Georgian characters.  That perked our curiosity and we got a lesson from Salome on Georgian family names. If you are from the west, your last name typically ends in *ze* as in Shervanadze. If you are from the east, your name typically ends in *shvili* as in the last name of the National Ballet Group (Sukhishvili).


It was remarkable to see just how many names were inscribed on the wall as Sighnaghi is home to only about 3,000 residents today.  There were probably far few back during World War II times.



The wall included images of the iconic architecture of Sighnaghi.

Shalva looking at the wall.  It's his first time here so he's as much a tourist as we are.

As is common in many cultures around the world, doves represent peace and here, they fly around the tree which symbolizes life.

We walked slowly before the World War II Memorial to take in as much as we could.

Salome then gave us a choice.  To do a bit more walking about town or to have lunch.  We all opted for the walk.   We strolled down a neighborhood street.  This really is very quaint little town though there are definitely buildings that could do with a coat of new paint or some patching here and there.






Our stroll through the neighborhood eventually led us to the outer walls of the city.  Back in the day, Sighnaghi was a walled city.  The original wall was built in the 18th century.  It was about  5 kilometers in length and 23 towers.  Inside the walls was a fortress.

Watch tower back in the day.  Not sure why the house is built so close to the tower.


Far off in the distance, you can see the remnants of a longer section of wall.  I had to really zoom in to get this shot.

Outside the walls looking back in to the town.


Salome pointed out the bend in the wall.

One of my favorite views.  You can see over the rooftops to the Alazani Valley beyond.

It was short stroll.  I probably burned all of 100 calories but nonetheless, it was time to eat.  We ate at a local restaurant. I ordered a classic Georgian dish of mushrooms stuffed with sulguni cheese which reminds me a bit of mozzarella but a bit saltier and a little sour.  Pat had mushrooms cooked with potatoes and onions. After we all ordered our food, Salome said it would take about 20 minutes before our food would arrive to the table. Instead of sitting at the table and waiting, I decided to check out what was nearby the restaurant. I noticed some vendors selling food outside a building that was located catty corner from the restaurant. I was curious so I walked over. Then, I saw vendors set up inside a building. I entered the dark space.



There were just about a handful of vendors. I saw the churchkela hanging up. There were strands in colors I had not seen so I took a closer look. A dark purple one caught my eye. The woman, who was selling them, spoke a bit of English. When I pointed to the dark purple one and asked, "Grape juice?", she replied, "No, wine." Wine flavored churchkela. I was intrigued. For 2 lari, I decided to buy one strand. I also noticed she sold some spices and tea. I asked about the tea and she wanted 5 lari for a cup full. Not exactly cheap but as a lover of tea, I could not resist so I nodded that I wanted a cup full.

With my purchases in hand, I walked around to check out what the other vendors were selling.  I was tempted to go back to the restaurant and bring Salome back with me to the market so she could tell me what everything was. 

Georgian cheeses.

Beans.  I've not yet eaten a dish with beans.

Veggies.  The selection is very reminiscent of what showed up on our dinner table in Azerbaijan and Central Asia.

Pickled veggies of some sort. 

Smoked pork.  I could smell this from far away :-)

Back outside, I crossed the street. Two veggie vendors had set up their produce, using the retaining wall as a display stand. It's amazing what my eyes are attracted to. Not the farmed produce but that which is foraged. In this case, it was stinging nettles! The teeny weeny thorns, running up and down the stems were the clue that this was indeed stinging nettles and not some other veggie. I have only recently come to appreciate this most unknown, yet delicious green. I first tasted it after buying a small bunch at Berkeley Bowl. We cooked it up at Bro's house - just simply sautéing it in olive oil. It tasted very much like a tender young spinach. In fact, I prefer it to spinach. We liked it so much that on our next trip to Berkeley Bowl, we indulged in another bunch.

Stinging nettles.  My favorite wild veggie.

Repurposed water and soda bottles.  I'm guessing they contain sauces of some sort.  I was so happy to see that the
plastic bottles don't just end up in a landfill somewhere!

While I was busy shopping, Salome the dog lover was gleefully feeding her newly found four legged friend.

Back at the restaurant, our food soon came to the table.

I ordered a bottle of pear soda to go with my meal.  It's tasty but cloyingly sweet.

Shalva and Salome shared a salad and a plate of grilled meat for lunch.  I like it when we all eat together.

My mushrooms had been cooked in a clay dish called a ketsi and they were piping hot. I tried to cool off a piece before biting in to it but alas, I must have been just a tad too impatient as I burned the roof of my mouth! Nonetheless, the cheese filled mushrooms were delicious - perfect with a piece of local bread. It was a simple but satisfying lunch for me.

Mushrooms filled with sulguni cheese and cooked with butter.  It's traditionally cooked and served in a clay dish (ketsi).

We took our time eating.  One of the advantages of doing a private tour is you don't have to rush off when someone else is ready to go.  You get to leave when you're ready to leave.  I'm a spoiled traveler.

With our bellies full, we left Sighnaghi and headed to a winery.  Afterall, we are in the Kakheti region of Georgia which the country's wine production region.  When I was planning the Georgia part of our trip, Inga had given me a couple of choices, in terms of wineries, to go to.  I had no clue which to pick so I just settled on a place called Kindzmarauli Marani which produces red and white dry wines, semi sweet wines.  Pat likes red wines so I thought this would be a good option for her as she will be the only one taste testing since I don't drink any alcohol.

The winery turned out to be more of a factory than a vineyard.  We went on a quick tour and then Pat did the wine tasting.

Amphoras.  They are HUGE - I could easily fit in one.  Georgians love their wine!

We walked past a long row of metal tanks.  Definitely for mass production of wines.  Wouldn't have such things at a winery in France or Napa Valley.

A room in the older part of the factory.  If I remember correctly, the amphoras are placed
beneath ground...in large cavities topped with stone caps.

Bottles of wine.  I don't think these are drinkable any more.

Animal (sheep?) skin used as a wine vessel.  Probably handy if you're a shepherd.

Newer factory with more metal tanks filled with wine.  Very commercial production.

The bottling area.

The lab.  Shalva and I both agreed that this would be the best place to work.  You get to sample wine all day long!

Pat and Salome taste testing.  Pat didn't like anything she tasted. She preferred the wine she shared with Yuriy last night.  I think that
came out of a barrel and not a metal tank.

Wines for sale in the factory shop.  You could pick up a bottle for 10 lari - about $4.40 USD!

Before we left the factory, we had some time to check out the store.  Pat was not interested in anything but I was tempted to buy a bottle of chacha aka Georgian vodka which is made from the residue left over after making wine.  It's odd how I'm always tempted to buy booze even though I don't drink a lick of it.  I can't explain it.

Wine tasting over and done with, it was off to Tsinandali, which is the name of a village, estate and historic winery that all once belonged to  the 19th-century aristocratic poet Alexander Chavchavadze (1786–1846).


Shalva is a fast driver but occasionally he does have to slow down like when a flock of sheep blocks the road.  Since the car was stopped, I got out briefly to snap a few photos.  I love sheep and this was a beautiful flock!

Notice the ram in the rear.  He's checking us out.



Another time Shalva had to slow down was when a large Georgian sheepdog literally blocked a three way intersection.  He was comfortably sprawled out and not about to move.  We could get around him but we had to do it slowly so as to not run over the guy.

I guess it was a comfy spot to lay down on?

I'm surprised at just how tame these dogs are considering they are suppose to protect a flock of sheep from predators.  I guess I don't come across as intimidating.

Situated, high up on the hill of a ridge,  at the crossroads of the three way intersection was Nekresi Monastery.  We didn't visit the place.  I just managed to snap a few photos as we drove by.

Perched high up on the ridge of a hill is Nekresi Monastery.

Nekresi Monastery.

More sheep.  Lots of sheep here!

Shalva parked the car at the entrance to Tsinandali Mansion.  He stayed back with the car while Salome, Pat and I headed up to the house.  Can't blame the guy for not wanting to go with us.  There was a part of me that didn't want to go either.  I've been to so many "houses that once belonged to a rich family" that I don't mind missing out on the occasional one or two.

The master guarding the estate at Tsinandali.

As with so many former grand homes, the grounds at Tsinandali were nicely manicured. 

Our entry ticket.

The former mansion is now a museum and a docent took us around. Photos were not allowed inside but I have to say, it was a very tastefully done up place.  Lots of nice furniture, dishware, artwork and knick knacks. The place was not as large as some old mansion I've been in but it looked like a very comfortable home for a wealthy family.  Here are a few of the photos of the house and garden that I took before and after we did the tour.


We exited the mansion from this structure which housed the wine cellar and for tourists, the restrooms.






On one side of the front yard was a small labyrinth.  At the center was a tree where people tied prayer/wish ribbons.



After Tsinandali, we headed back to Tblisi. Somewhere along the way, eagle eyed Shalva spotted what he called *wood mushrooms* being sold on the roadside. He wanted to know if I wanted them and of course, I did. So, he put the car in reverse and carefully backed up to the stand. There, I saw the very large cluster of oyster mushrooms. I have never seen such large oyster mushrooms in my entire life! I knew I wanted them but had no real idea of what to do with them. I figured I could them up for dinner.

Look at the size of those mushrooms compared to the chicken eggs!


The man wanted 5 lari for a kilo. Perfect as I had a 5 lari bill in my pocket. For that I got a large cluster and then some. The weight came to a little over 1.1 kilos. I told them to remove a few mushrooms to bring the weight down but they graciously accepted the 5 lari. Where in the US can you get 2.2 lbs of wild mushrooms for about $2.50?? I was in mushroom foodie heaven.....especially when Salome told us that she would ask the woman who owns the guesthouse that we'll be staying in tomorrow night whether or not she would cook up the mushrooms for us. Salome called the woman and got a positive response back. Yay!


It was only about an hour's drive back to Tbilisi.  We arrived during the evening rush hour so our speed did slow down to a crawl at times.  I so do not miss commuting to and from work!

Near the city is a stretch of main highway after our 43rd President after he visited the country in 2005.  On that visit, a Georgian man named Vladimir Arutyunian attempted to assassinate George W. Bush and then Georgian President, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili by throwing a grenade towards the two men.  The grenade did not detonate.  Maybe the Georgians felt guilty about the incident and named the road, after Bush, in his honor?


Another view of those cliffside homes. I swear one strong wind and they'll knock over!

Back in Tblisi, Shalva dropped us off near the sulphur baths.   We know this stretch of the Old City well now - we've passed it so many times.



It's a pretty park even though for some odd reason, it's named after the former president of Azerbaijan - Heydar Aliyev.  Perhaps the Azeris paid for its construction?



Pat and I decided to withdraw more money from the ATM as we need to have cash on hand for our trip outside the city. We also popped into the bakery and got another piece of cheese bread.

On our walk home, we picked up two ice cream bars. Another of my things to do on my trips is try the ice cream in every place I go to. Doesn't always happen but when the ice cream case is staring at you when you walk by, it's hard to say no.

Back in the apartment, my first order was to contact our Airbnb host to let him know we were leaving at 9a the next day and to ask him where to leave the key. I was really struggling to get connectivity on both the iPad and my cellphone despite the fact that we have WiFi in the apartment. Eventually, I gave up and walked out to the front of the church where I got some bandwidth on the mobile network. I was able to fire up WhatsApp and send out a message. Did the same on Airbnb. As I walked back to the apartment, I just hoped I would get a response. Worst case, I would ask Salome to call them in the morning.

Back at the apartment, I was feeling antsy. I kept checking my phone for a reply. There was none. I had originally planned to get all this *admin* stuff out of the way before eating my dinner but no such luck. Instead, I folded my laundry and did some repacking

It was an early night's out. Even though we hadn't done much but ride in a car, we were tired. We hit the road tomorrow, on our way to the mountains! I am excited!

Goodnight from Tbilisi.