Saturday, April 16, 2016

To the Upper Svaneti. Mestia.

Mestia.

Despite how excited I was to be going to the Svaneti region, heart of the Caucasus mountains in Georgia, this day turned out to be very inspiring. I barely took any photos....at least barely for me, and the videos I took pretty much all turned out to blurry. Was I not paying any attention to focusing? Well, I blame it all on the dreary weather that we had today. Everything looked drab to me. Anyway, flash back to this morning.

I woke up well before Pat's 7a alarm went off. I looked out the window to look at dreary skies.  It wasn't raining but it did look  like it could pour down any second. Ugh.

Pat, Salome and I were down in the dining room for breakfast at 8a; Shalva joined us a few minutes later. Big spread. 

Pat is never late for breakfast.....not even by a minute :-)

Salome.....always cheerful!

View from our front window.  We overlooked the entrance to the hotel.

Looking out the side window, I had a nice view of Bagrati Cathedral.

At 9a, we were on the way to Bagrati Cathedral. By now, it was drizzling and it was cold. Pat and I had to get out all our cool weather clothes and rain wear.

Salome started her intro to the cathedral standing by the description plaque....in the rain! Why? After a few minutes, I started to inch towards the entrance where Shalva had already wisely taken shelter.



The bell tower.

Before entering, we donned our headscarves and took a wrap, from the collective bucket, to tie around our waists.

A very folksy looking Georgian cross.  I found it very charming.

Standing under the entrance, looking at the freestanding bell tower.

Pillars at the front portico.

Officially known as The Cathedral of the Dormition, Bagrati Cathedral was constructed in the 11th century by King Bagrati III.  As with many of the churches in Georgia, Bagrati had suffered heavy damage throughout its history.  It was reconstructed to its present state through a gradual process starting in the 1950s, with major conservation works concluding in 2012.   In 1994 Bagrati Cathedral, together with the Gelati Monastery, was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site as a single entity.  In 2010, UNESCO added Bagratli cathedral to its list of endangered world heritage sites in part because of the continuing reconstruction, which it feared would affect the structural integrity and authenticity of the site.  The following year, it urged the Georgian government to reserve some of the changes made during the restoration process at the same time admitting that it was very likely that many of the changes were irreversible.  Salome brought up the issue of restoration not being done properly and voiced concern that UNESCO would retract the heritage site inscription.  I don't know if they do that or not but  Bagrati does exemplify the situation where lack of funds and expertise can actually do more harm than good when it comes to restoring a historical landmark.

NOTE:  I just checked and indeed in 2013, UNESCO removed Bagrati Cathedral from its list of World Heritage Sites though Gelati Monastery will remain on the list as its own entity.  How sad for Bagrati.

Inside, the cathedral was a massive interior, with soaring walls leading up to the dome.  There were a few icons hung up here and there but otherwise, the interior space was devoid of decoration.  It was a cold space.


The only decoration behind the iconostasis was this small painting hanging high up on the stone wall.

Relics of saints.  Yes, they are human bones.  Definitely some leg bones, perhaps an arm bone or two?

A section of glass preserves the original floor that was laid down in 1003 when the cathedral was originally constructed.

As we entered Bagrati, I could hear monks chatting - the sound was resonating through the large space of the cathedral. I decided to capture a snippet of it on video.


Every icon, large and small, was lit up by candlelight.

The sexton was going about and lighting all the candles.



Salome returning our skirts to the communal basket.
It was much too wet and much too cold to walk around the grounds at Bagrati so we decided to just head on down the road to our next destination.


Soviet era housing looks drab under the best of conditions.  Even the pop of terracotta color can't pretty up this place.


We arrived into Zugdidi around 11a. Shalva parked the car and Salome, Pat and I got into the pouring rain.  I had a rain poncho to protect my body and head and I had wrapped my left foot in a plastic bag; I hoped that would be enough to keep my cast dry.

Wisely, Shalva opted to stay behind while the three of us walked towards Dadiani Palace.




The Zugdidi Palace complex also included a vast botanic garden designed by the Italian landscape architect Joseph Babini.  The garden, which was planted in 1840, included an orangery, a labyrinth, a plant nursery, a hothouse, and a man-made lake, and was stocked with exotic plants imported from all over the world, including one of the world’s finest rose collections. The gardens were vandalized by the retreating Ottoman forces in 1918.  Too bad it was such a dreary day.  Otherwise, we could have walked about the garden a bit.



The Vlakerni Holy Virgin Mary Cathedral built in 1824-1830

Standing underneat the front portico looking back out towards the garden and gate we entered through.

There was a large group of school children hanging outside the front portico. I could see there were all very curious about my foot. The bright blue slipper is definitely eye catching. I have to admit, when I notice people glancing at it, I exaggerate the limp :-). Sympathy points.

Inside the front lobby was the ticket kiosk. By the time I entered, Pat had already bought our tickets with cost 2 lari each. She also paid 5 lari for a guide, presumably an English speaking one. We had to wait a few minutes before our guide appeared. She seemed very serious and as with many people who are speaking a foreign language, she was very deliberate in her pronunciation and tone. I appreciated that as it made it easier to understand her through her Georgian accent.

For centuries, the Samegrelo region was was ruled by the powerful Dadiani family. For hundreds of years, Zugdidi was the seat of the Dadianis’ power, and the Zugdidi residences of the Dadianis offer examples of royal architecture associated with the House of Dadiani.

Our guide took us on about a half hour tour through the mansion which is now a museum, telling us about the family that once lived there and pointing out their personal objects that are now on display. Unfortunately, photos were not permitted inside.

When our tour was over, we met back up with Salome in the lobby. By now, the rain was falling harder. Salome kindly shared her umbrella with me. I could feel my left sock slowly getting wetter and wetter as we walked. We all scurried along as quickly as we could.

Back in the car, we drove a short distance to a local restaurant where we had lunch. I ordered two khinakali, a Greek salad and a bottle of terkhun, the tarragon soda. My Khinakali came quickly but the salad never appeared. They were delivering dishes to us one at a time so it never dawned on me to ask where it was. In fact, I think most of us were almost done eating before Shalva's salmon dish was delivered to the table. In any case, two khinakali would not have been enough to fill me up for the rest of the day. Luckily, Salome had ordered a pizza that she could not finish on her own so I ate 3 slices. A little piggish on my part but she wasn't able to eat more than a couple of slices.

Drying out and warming up as we wait for our lunch to be delivered to our table.

After lunch, we drove to Mestia. The first stretch of the drive was easy but that changed as we made our way into the heart of the mountains.


The road was windy and at times, unpaved. Shalva took care.

We're getting into the mountains.

Not too many choices on which way to turn :-)

We even encountered men removing a fallen tree.   We were wondering how long it would take the men to clear the road.



Thankfully, chainsaws made quick work of clearing the mess and in less than a few minutes, the car ahead of us was able to drive past the fallen tree.  Shalva followed.


We had a ways to go before reaching Mestia.  All the while, it was dreary but the gray skies could not take away from the stunning landscape we were driving through. It really is gorgeous mountainscape here!




You can see that the deciduous trees have yet to leaf out.  It's still early spring here.

Yes, there were glimpses of blue sky.  There's hope the sun will eventually come out from behind the clouds!

Hamlets dotted the hillsides.

You know it's cold when the local is cold.  We were all bundled up!

Bucolic country scene.  Would be much prettier if the skies were blue :-(

In some places, the clouds hung heavy and low.


Then, we spotted the small church perched high up on the hill.  It was our sign that we had arrived into Mestia.  Apparently, it's a new church and not a historic tourist attraction.  Okay by me.  I've already seen four of the best that Georgia has to offer and have no strong desire to see another church.  I am quickly reaching my church limit.



Coming into town!
Shalva parked the car outside the gate of our hotel, a small family owned and operated place called Hotel Chubu.  Salome has stayed her before and knows the family well. 


The hotel dog.  Very friendly.  Loves nothing more than to play with you.

The owners greeted us warmly and in no time, we were settled in to our rooms.   Pat and I rested a bit before meeting back up with Salome at 5:30p for a short walk through town.  It was windy and very cold so we piled on the clothes before venturing back out.

Standing right outside the gate to our hotel.  Not often you see cows outside your hotel :-)

He?  she? is not sure what to make of me.

Mestia is the largest community (officially named a townlet) in the Upper Svaneti region. It was formerly known as Seti. The population is mostly Svans, a cultural and linguistic subgroup of the Georgians.  They speak a language that Salome does not understand.  Despite its small size, Mestia was an important centre of Georgian culture for centuries and contains a number of medieval monuments, such as churches and forts, included in a list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  The entire Upper Svaneti region was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996.

Mestia is filled with tower homes

Our walk would take us to the center of town.  Along the way, we saw a few of the tower homes that are common in this region.

Villages in this rugged landscape are often too scattered to be encircled with a protective wall. Therefore, each individual house had to be separately fortified.  The tower homes of Svaneti were at the same time family living quarters, and fortified fortresses of defense - offering protection to their owners and to their livestock, and also served as shelters for the most valuable possessions of every family. Most of the towers date back to between the 9th and 12th centuries.

Looking towards town center.  Shops and hotels lined the street.  I don't recall seeing all that many restaurants here.

Looking back towards our hotel.  We drove into Mestia on this road.  Love the sight of the snow on the mountains!

We made a couple of stops on our way to town.  The sign pointing to a bakery was our first break.  We headed inside but unfortunately, there was nothing for sale.  We were too late in coming.  Perhaps tomorrow.  Next, we stopped into a small supermarket and both Pat and I bought a small bag of Svaneti salt which Salome had recommended we should buy as it's a specialty of the region.  Svaneti salt is basically a spice blend so you can expect that if you buy it locally, no two blends will be the same.  I look forward to cooking with it when I get home.





There was a small park in the center of town.  The only person there was this young boy, filling up a bottle with spring water.


From the park, we entered into a small square where this statue stood.  It's a statue of Queen Tamar who ruled the country from 1184 to 1213. She was the country's only female ruler.  I liked the sculpture very much but Salome is not a fan and apparently, she's not alone.   The statue, which was created by Vazha Melikishvili, a Georgian sculptor, was erected in secrecy, in the dark of night.  Many of the towns people did not take to that lightly and she's not a popular piece of artwork in Mestia.  Perhaps, she's too modern looking in design for the conservative populace of this region.



The crescent moon, menorah, flower and cross - symbols of Islam, Judaism, Buddhism (??) and Christianity.

Queen Tamar, depicted sitting side saddle on her stead.  I appreciate the charm of this statue.

Dinner was at 8p in the small dining room off the lobby of the hotel. We were served a egetable soup; the main meat was fried chicken and there was a beet salad that I enjoyed the beet salad. Earlier in the afternoon, we had smelled the sweet aroma of something being backed.  That turned out to be a simple cake which looked awfully dry.  I skipped the sweet and just had a cup of tea for dessert.

Pat, on her iPad, in the lobby of our small hotel.  We all loved sitting right in front of the wood burning stove.

Tomorrow, we go further into the remote part of Svaneti - the village of Ushguli will be our destination. I am so very happy to be in the mountains once again.  It's so peaceful and tranquil here and the air is fresh and clean!  I can't wait to travel deeper into the mountains.  I need a good night's rest so I'm shutting down early tonight.

Good night from Mestia!