Suitcase and World: Roadtrip Through Georgia. Two Monasteries and a Cathedral.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Roadtrip Through Georgia. Two Monasteries and a Cathedral.

Mural painting of Christ Pantocrator on the central dome of the Church of Virgin Mary the Blessed at Gelati Monastery.

Road trip!  We left Tbilisi today to begin a several day tour around the country.   We've not spent much time exploring Tbilisi but I've planned time for that later. 

Pat had set the alarm for 7a but I was awake well before then. I had had a really good night's rest. Pat and I shared a small piece of the cheese bread and some tea for breakfast.

We cleaned up the apartment and were ready to leave well before 9a. Salome arrived on time and helped us get our luggage down the metal steps. Last night, I had received a reply from our Airbnb host on WhatsApp. The English was broken so I wasn't exactly sure what to do. We were to leave the key under the front door mat. At least, I think that was the gist of the words.  Pat locked the door and stuck the key under the mat. Salome was curious about the apartment so Pat let her in so she could see the place. Not exactly a palace but the location, within the Old City, can't be beat!

On our way to the parking lot to meet up with Shalva, we bumped into Giorgi - our Airbnb host. He was carrying a plastic pail filled with cleaning supplies.  I was guessing he had another set of renters on the way.  We shook hands and I introduced myself as Julee. He and Salome exchanged a few words - she told him where we had left the key.  We waved Giorgi goodbye and went on our way.  We have places to go, people!

Shalva was waiting for us by the car. We piled our luggage into the back and headed on down the road. It was a slow crawl out of the city - morning rush hour in Tblisi is as bad as in most cities around the world these days.

Our first destination of the day was Jvari Monastery, located about 20 miles from Tbilisi.  With rush hour traffic, it took us almost an hour to get there.

Shalva stopped the car quite distance from the monastery.  The view was amazing with the small monastery  perched atop a hill with mountains in the background.  Through my lens, I could see a few people walking about the grounds.  Otherwise, it didn't look to be crowded.  I was happy to know I wouldn't have to be jostling with someone else to take photos.  This place is small.  Doesn't take many people to form a crowd that fills up a room!

Shalva parked the car in the lot.  No big tour bus in sight and barely a handful of souvenir vendors. 

His Lada doubles as his display table :-)

We took the path leading up to the entrance.  It was an absolutely gorgeous day to be out and about exploring places!

Jvari church and remnants of a fortress wall built in the Middle Ages.

Before we entered the monastery, we walked over and took in the view of the town of Mtksheta with the iconic Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in clear sight.  Mtskheta is located at the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers and we could see both rivers from our vantage point beside the monastery.  The monks really enjoyed a wonderful view of the surrounding area.

According to traditional accounts, Jvari Monastery was built in the early 4th century by St. Nino who  erected a large wooden cross on the site of a pagan temple. The cross was reportedly able to work miracles and therefore drew pilgrims from all over the Caucasus. A small church was erected over the remnants of the wooden cross in 545 AD and was named the "Small Church of Jvari".

The present building, or "Great Church of Jvari", is generally held to have been built between 590 AD and 605 AD by Erismtavari Stepanoz I.  As the small church grew in importance as a pilgrimage site, the complex around it was expanded.  In the late Middle Ages, the complex was fortified by a stone wall and gate, remnants of which still survive. During the Soviet period, the church was preserved as a national monument, but access was rendered difficult by tight security at a nearby military base. After the independence of Georgia, the building was restored to active religious use.  In 1994,  Jvari together with other monuments of Mtskheta was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Glorification of the Cross, bas-relief above the entrance door.

Rules for visitors.

The Jvari church is an early example of domed tetraconch.  A tetraconch is a church or other religious building that has four apses, one in each direction, usually of equal size.  The interior of Jvari church is small.  The walls are of stone brick and the decorations were very simple and modest - just a few paintings and crosses and some cut flowers.  There's something about the stark simplicity of the place that I love.  Maybe because here there is nothing to distract you from contemplation and prayer.  That's how it should be in a place of worship.

Icon of St. Nino holding her grapevine cross.

Back outside, Salome took us around the church to see the facade which is adorned with bas-relief work.

You can see the damage of the ages but through it, the beauty that once was.

Remnants of the fortress that was added to the complex back in the Middle Ages.

From Jvari, we headed down the hill and across the river to Mtskehet Mtksheta (I can't spell the name of this town without fumbling.....too many consonants and not enough vowels....grrrr) Mtskheta (finally!), which was formerly the capital of the Kingdom of Iberia.

Salome had Shalva drop us off at the end of a neighborhood street that led to Svetitskhoveli Cathedral.  The neighborhood street was flanked with some very nice homes, all constructed of Georgian brick.  Salome told us that many of the home owners have converted their houses into guesthouses to cash in on the popularity of Mtskheta as a tourist destination. 

We walked only a block before arriving at the cathedral.

The original church was built in 4th century A.D. during the reign of Mirian III of Kartli (Iberia). St. Nino is said to have chosen the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers as the place of the first Georgian Church.  In the centuries that followed, the church has endured damage several times, notably by the invasions of Arabs, Persians, and Timur and by the Soviets. The building has also been damaged by earthquakes.

Svetitskhoveli has long been one of the principal Georgian Orthodox churches and is among the most venerated places of worship in the region because it is known as the burial site of Christ's robe.

According to Georgian religious writings, in the 1st century AD a Georgian Jew from Mtskheta named Elias was in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified. Elias bought Jesus’ robe from a Roman soldier at Golgotha and brought it back to Georgia. Returning to his native city, he was met by his sister Sidonia who upon touching the robe immediately died from the emotions engendered by the sacred object. The robe could not be removed from her grasp, so she was buried with it.

Svetitskhoveli was inscribed, in 1994, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with other landmarks in Mtskheta and Jvari Monastery.

Entrance to the Cathedral grounds.

A pair of bulls' heads flank the entrance on the west façade, remnants of the 5th-century church. 
They are a testament to folk influence on Christian iconography during that period.

We entered into a large courtyard.  The cathedral stood to one side. 

We entered crossing through the tower.

The cathedral is surrounded by a defensive wall, built of stone and brick during the reign of King Erekle II in 1787.  The wall has eight towers - six of them are cylindrical and two of them are square.

Before entering the cathedral, Salome, Pat and I donned our headscarves and Pat and I got skirts from the communal basket.

The interior was dim so taking photos was challenging.  Nonetheless, here are a few of the images that I shot.

Inside the cathedral is a small stone church; a symbolic copy of the Chapel of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Built between the end of the 13th and the beginning the 14th centuries, it was erected here to mark Svetitskhoveli as the second most sacred place in the world (after the church of Jerusalem) because of the belief that Christ’s robe is buried here. In front of this stone chapel is a small stone slab that marks Sidonia’s grave.

This monument marks the spot that Christ's robe is believed to be buried under.

The cathedral interior walls were once fully adorned with medieval frescoes.  Only a few have survived to today.

The large rectangular stone slab marks the tomb of King Erekle II.

Back outside, we took a quick walk around one side of the cathedral grounds.

Salome pointed high up to a spot, on the north façade, just beneath the cupola.  There was a small bas-relief of a hand holding a hammer.  The picture below is the best I could do as I had to use my left hand to shield the light from my lens, even though I was already using a hood - hard to hold the camera still with one hand, focus and snap :-(  You can barely make out the hand and hammer in the photo - it's just beneath the apex of the upper arch.  See it?  Yeah, it wasn't easy for me to spot either.  If I remember correctly, that's the mark of the builder.

Outside the cathedral grounds, we walked down the main street taking in views of the cathedral on one side and whole bunch of souvenir stands and shops on the other side.

I've noticed and appreciated the fact that vendors here rarely approach you and they don't mind you taking photos without asking first.

A few vendors had samples of churchkela. I tried a few. I like the confection as it's not too sweet. In some ways, it's like the version of lokum that I like and that I tried to make at home except the fruit part is not quite as gelatinous - I don't think the receipt calls for some form of inverted sugar (e.g., glucouse) as the natural pectin is enough to bind the puréed fruit.

Fruit leathers.

Fruit leathers on the left, dried persimmons on the right.

Dried persimmons.  They don't look appealing but if you enjoy eating dried fruits (which I don't), you'd love these.

Georgian dolls. 

Embroidered Georgian skull caps.  So pretty but I've yet to see a local person wearing one.

Pine cone preserves.  Yes, those are pine cones.  According to the vendor, it's an herbal remedy.

Fruit and veggie jams and preserves.

Bottles of flavored chacha.

Looking back at the shops that lined the alley that led us from the cathedral to the parking lot where Shalva had parked our car.

Then it was off to lunch at a local restaurant which was located just a short distance away.  Salome had promised that she was going to take us to a place where we would eat khinkali - Georgia's contribution to the world of soup dumplings.

Wer're starting to see snow capped mountains.  Yay!

I didn't notice any large tour bus parked out front but when we entered the restaurant, there was a large group of Chinese tourists. My heart sank. I was hoping we wouldn't be fed touristy Georgian food. Salome had assured us this was a good place for khinakali, so I kept an open mind.

Here's the place we had lunch.  I'd tell you the name in English but I can't read Georgian to translate :-)

There was a small pool, with fish, in the back of the restaurant.

Salome arranged for a table to be setup for us out on the back patio. It was a beautiful day and most certainly, I much preferred a table under the shade of a tree than being stuffed inside the restaurant with a large group of Chinese tourists! Before we headed out back, we placed our orders. I chose a bowl of chicken soup and two dumplings. After Salome used her fingers to show us how big one dumpling is, two seemed more than enough. Pat ordered a green salad and two dumplings.

Shalva's ready to eat!

I ordered tarhun, Georgian tarragon soda, to go with my meal.  Yes, it's this neon green!

When the dumplings arrived, they looked like empty sacks. Very cute! They weren't quite as large as I had expected. Salome wanted me to wait for her dumpling order to arrive but I assured her I knew how to eat them. I grabbed one of the khinakali from my plate, took a small bite from the corner and sucked as much of the soup as I could before biting into the meat. One taste and I knew it was pork. Tasted pretty much like the wontons I often make at home except I add some shrimp along with the pork. These were flavored with a bit of cilantro which I never do but since tasting these, have decided it will be an integral ingredient in my dumplings. I quickly devoured both dumplings and when Salome offered some from the plateful she had ordered, I actually downed two more. I was already full but out of sheer greed, I probably could have eaten another one but decided 4 was enough. Can't be a pig!! Oh...chicken soup was like egg drop soup. Okay but if I ever come back to this place, I would not order it again.

Khinkali, pure Georgian comfort food.  I could eat these every day!

After lunch, we continued our road trip towards the city of Kutaisi where we would spend the night.

Lots of flowering fruit trees and beautiful mountains.

I don't think I will ever tire of seeing snow capped mountains.  This is a proclamation coming from a city girl! :-)

Our road trip to Kutaisi took us through the Rikoti Pass which is situated at an elevation of 996 meters (3,268 feet).  The mountain pass is located in the southern portion of the Likhi Range, a spur of the Greater Caucasus which divides Georgia into its western and eastern parts. The Tbilisi-Kutaisi highway, which connects the two cities,  runs through the pass in the rock-cut tunnel for a distance of 1,722 meters (5,650 ft) length.  The tunnel was opened in the year 1982.  Driving through the tunnel, Pat and I immediately recalled our ride through the Anzob Tunnel in Tajikistan which was truly a memorable travel moment for us as that ride was so crazy it was laughable.

Entering the Rikoti Pass tunnel.

We drove through the streets of Kutaisi to arrive at Gelati Monastery, our last sightseeing destination of the day.

Shalva parked the car on the roadside and we walked through a stone covered footpath to enter the monastery complex.

The stone covered footpath.

The Gelati Monastery complex was founded in 1106 by King David IV (aka King David the Builder) as a grand tribute to his victory over the Turks.  In addition to the monastery, the complex is also home to an academy which was one of the first institutions of higher education founded in the Middle Ages. Although the academy ceased to function in the late Middle Ages—after which it was converted into a refectory—the monastery remains in use. The site is renowned for its collection of 12th to 19th century mosaics, wall paintings, enamels, and metalwork. In 1994, Gelati was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.   All the structures in the complex continue to suffer from damage from the elements.  Unfortunately, restoration work has been hampered by a lack of funds and professional expertise.

The largest building in the complex - the Church of the Virgin Mary.

Church of St. George.

The cupola of the Church of St. George.

Walking towards the Church of St. Nicholas.

Excavations are still being done on the grounds of the complex.

Church of the Virgin Mary.  Restoration work is on going.

Entrance to the Academy.

Bas relief of a bull

Inside the academy.

View of the surrounding area from one of the windows in the academy.

Salome took us to a back room, in the academy, that some historians have postulated was used as an observatory.

The academy on the left, Church of St. Nicholas in the middle, and the bell tower on the right.

The bell tower.

After a quick walk around the grounds, we entered the Church of the Virgin Mary.  My first impression on entering the church was simply, *Wow!*   Walls and ceiling were fully decorated with murals dating from the 12th to 17th centuries.  The elements and time have damaged quite a lot of them but you can still appreciate the beauty of what remains.

A small shrine graces the entry hall.

The central apse is decorated with a mosaic dated  to 1125-1130 depicting the Mother of God (not the Virgin Mary who is considered the Mother of Christ) and the archangels Michael and Gabriel.

Detail of the mural in the central apse.

Looking back through the main entrance.

It's hard to make out unless you zoom in on the photo below but there is a line of royal figures at the bottom of this wall mural located on the church's north wall.  From left to right, the figures depict Queen Rusudan, Prince Bagrat, King George II, Queen Helen, King Bagrat III of Imereti, Catholicos Yevdemon Chetidze, and on the far right, King David the Builder

Close up view of the painting of King David the Builder

Salome has obviously been here many times before.  She took us behind a closed door, that we wouldn't have entered otherwise.

We entered into a small entry hall leading to two smaller rooms.  The moment we entered, a small group of tourists followed us.  I think they were as curious as we were to see what was behind the closed door.

The two rooms.  What were they used for?  Perhaps they served as chapels?

Just imagine how grand this room would look if it was restored to its former glory.  In some ways though, I prefer the look that time created.

From one closed door, we headed to another set.  Salome knows where all the secret spots are :-)  This time she needed the muscles of Shalva to yank the large wood door open.

There were another two rooms.  The frescoes here were far more faded than in the main part of the church.  My guess would be that the restorers have yet to touch these spaces.  With money and time, perhaps one day.

Lost beauty.  I don't know how one goes about restoring something like this.  Maybe that's an impossibility.

You always have to look up!

Even the window openings are beautifully painted.

A peek back into the main apse.  Such beauty!

From the church, we followed Salome back outside to a spot that was the complex's original entrance.  A metal gate once closed off the entrance.  This is where King David the Builder is buried.  I wondered why he chose to be buried here.  Apparently, he wanted to be buried just inside the gate so he could count the steps of the people who came to the monastery.  I wonder if he was counting the day we visited?
ust inside the gate because he wanted to be able to count the steps of the people who visited the monastery.

Read more at:
ust inside the gate because he wanted to be able to count the steps of the people who visited the monastery.

Read more at:

The modest tomb of King David the Builder. 

After hobbling all over the tomb of King David the Builder (I didn't even realize the stone slab was his tomb), I followed the other three to the Church of St. George.

Another view of the Church of St. Nicholas which is unusual for the fact that it is a 2 storey structure.
Monks' quarters?

Church of St. George.

Although its a much smaller church than the Church of the Virgin Mary, St. George's is also filled with colorful frescoes dating back to the 16th century.

The end of our visit to Gelati Monastery marked the end of our sightseeing day.  It was almost 6p by the time we arrived at our hotel - Argo Palace which is family owned and operated. Salome knows the family and a woman, whom I presume is the matriarch, greeted us at the door. There was no need to check in. In fact, Salome just helped herself to the key to room number 30 which turned out to be on the top floor and was a corner room. I think Salome picked the nicest room for us but it was a hike up quite a few stairs to get there. We appreciated the gesture to get us a nice room but I think Pat and I would have just been as happy with a room on a lower floor - not so many steps to have to go up and down.

We had agreed to dinner at 8p and were promptly down in the dining room at that time. There were two tables set up. One had two plates of what looked to be our sautéed oyster mushrooms. I decided that was our table!  A short while later, a plate of Imeruli (Imeretian) khachapuri was put on the table.  I had to try some of that as we are in the Imereti region and this is a specialty of the region.

Soon, Salome and then Shalva arrived and we all sat down to eat. We were first served a large old of rice and potato soup, in a tomato broth. Ok but nothing memorable. T

hen we dug into all the veggie dishes.  In addition to the mushrooms, there were plates of potato salad,  slices of cooked eggplant rolled around walnut paste, the ubiquitous tomatoes and cucumbers, a plate of Imereti cheese and lots of bread to accompany the food. As we ate our *appetizers*, a plate of fried chicken pieces and a bowl of Georgian beef stew were brought to the table. I was still full from the khinakali at lunch so I ate very little dinner. I couldn't resist a piece of chicken though. The pieces of chicken looked like they had just been dropped into a lot of hot oil and deep fried -no flour coating or seasoning. I had a piece of thigh meat. Skin was crispy from the frying. The meat was moist with a very silky texture and very flavorful. Sad to say but in the US, we've mass produced chickens to the point that they lack flavor and unless you're lucky enough to get a bird that has never been frozen, the texture of the meat is coarse and dry. Not hard to understand why I rarely eat chicken at home but I enjoy it outside anywhere outside the borders of the US!

You think there's enough food for four people? :-)

Our oyster mushrooms.  Delicious, if I might say so myself.

Simple deep fried chicken on the left; Imeruli (Imeretian) khachapuri on the right.

Clockwise from the top:  tomato and cucumber slices, oyster mushrooms, potato salad, Imereti cheese,
eggplant rollups with walnuts (Badridzhani Nigvsit).

After dinner, Pat and I relaxed in the room. I also braved the challenge of taking a shower. Not easy keeping my cast dry...even with a plastic bag covering it. Oh well. I just do the best I can. It was another early light's out. It's been a long day and we have another long one ahead of us. Tomorrow, we head into the the Svaneti region. Time to take in views of snow capped mountains!