Story and Photographs by Francoise Yohalem
For the last ten years, I’ve promised my Georgian friend Lali that I would visit. She had lived in the U.S. for twenty years, become a U.S. citizen, and then almost ten years ago moved back to where her roots and heart are: Tbilisi, Georgia.
Even before meeting Lali, I had been curious about the multi-faceted beauty, rich history, and culture of this small country strategically located between Europe and Asia, and by the reputation of its proud people. The fact that Georgia has its own language and unique alphabet—one of 14 alphabets in the world—has contributed to the country’s success in preserving its spirit of independence and multi-layered culture against centuries of foreign invasions and the recent Soviet occupation.
I was soon to be dazzled by the beautiful natural beauty, impressed by the importance and richness the arts have always had for the Georgians, and benefited from their legendary hospitality and generosity while enjoying the wonderful food and wine. Archaeologists found proof that viticulture started in Georgia around 7000-5000 BC and the country has over 500 types of grapes and produces a variety of 50 wines, some of which have won international praise.
One year ago, I met Dan and Ceil, a retired, well traveled Californian couple, who had agreed to move to Tbilisi for one year with an American Bar Association program. Dan, a retired Federal Prosecutor, volunteered to work with Georgian judges and attorneys to help establish a jury system. Ceil is an excellent photographer. They moved to Tbilisi with their two cats in September 2007, and befriended Lali, a well-known and respected figure in the diplomatic and cultural community there.
Early 2008 I confirmed that I would finally make the trip to Georgia during that summer. We agreed to go on a trip into the Caucasus, more specifically to the remote and unique region of Upper Svaneti, far into the northwest portion of the country, and in the central part of the Caucasus massif. We hired Levan Dadiani, founder of the recently formed “Geotrek”. Geotrek is intent on developing a nascent tourism industry in Georgia. Levan, an environmentalist specializing in European mountain regions, designed the perfect “adventure” for the four us: we would stay with families in each village, and take 3-to-6 hour daily hikes into the nearby mountains. We also told him of our strong interests and curiosity about the culture and arts of this area.
There are direct flights to Tbilisi from many European capitals, and, on July 4th I flew Lufthansa from Munich and landed at Tbilisi airport at 3:00 a.m. As usual, the “ungodly” hour at which most flights from Europe arrive.
Because of its location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and on the Northern Silk Road, Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, became a target of foreign invaders and was destroyed more than 22 times in 15 centuries, including by the Arabs, Persians, Mongols, Turks and North Caucasus tribes. Archaeologists have found traces of settlements there as early as 5000 BC. The city, founded by King Vaktang Gorgasalis in 458, reached its “Golden Age” in the 11th and 12th century, after beloved King David the Builder drove the Arabs out, founded a strong Christian kingdom, and promoted Georgian culture. Followed by his great grand-daughter Queen Tamara – of equal fame – they built the city into one of the most important trade center in the Middle East. It was the Persians who built the Narikala fortress that towers above the city which spreads along the banks of the Mtkvari river. Each historical period and event has woven rich cultural layers into a fabric that is both European and Asian, embroidered with traditions, legends, and heroic tales.
Settling into my friend Lali’s lovely apartment, an oasis of luxury and comfort, this otherwise decrepit and depressing building reminded me of a trip to the Ukraine years earlier. For some unknown reason, water was only turned on between 11:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. There was a lovely view over the river on one side, and the mountains in the back.
Gorgasali Avenue, running along the front of the building and facing the Mtkvari river, is very commercial and animated with many small stores selling basic necessities. Dozens of pleading Georgian ladies sitting at door openings are peddling fruits and vegetables, or homemade delicious breads filled with cheese (khachapuri), vegetables, or meat, a tasty and inexpensive Georgian “fast food”. It is easy to understand why the Georgian cuisine and Georgian hospitality are so celebrated. The abundant variety, subtlety, and freshness of the dishes we sampled, all the way into the most remote villages of the Caucasus, were remarkable. Even in the most modest homes our hostess would prepare elaborate flavorful specialties, using vegetables freshly picked from the garden, cooking on a wooden stove in the middle of the kitchen/dining room, using primitive utensils.
I spent a few days in Tbilisi, exploring its many neighborhoods, visiting museums and churches, careful not to trip on the torn-up sidewalks or get hit while dashing across the busy streets with aggressive drivers who seem to hate pedestrians. I learned how to hop onto one of the noisy and polluting yellow buses which will take you anywhere for less than one Lari, closing my eyes to the scary traffic. There is a surprising amount of new construction going on – especially 4-star hotels and luxury apartment buildings – but the infrastructure is badly in need of repair. It is sad to see that some of the beautiful historical buildings are being neglected.
A schizophrenic mood prevails in this city and its people, victims of very harsh economic times and a decline in their standard of living brought about by years of corrupt government, civil war, unemployment, and ongoing energy shortages that followed the freedom from Moscow’s central planning in 1991. One feels that the Georgians have not yet adjusted to their independence, and are wounded, disheartened, and somewhat disoriented. Over the years, the constant fighting with the two separatist states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – fueled by Moscow – led to their seceding from Georgia in 1993, but the situation there is still very precarious and even dangerous as proven by this summer’s sudden renewal of violence.
Especially enjoyable is the Old Town spreading below the Narikala fortress complex. This “Kala” neighborhood was many times destroyed and rebuilt. The famous stone sulfur baths, rich in hydrogen sulfide, survived the last burning of the city by Agha Mohammed Khan at the end of the 18th century, and the domed brick structures above the baths have been recently refurbished to create a lovely architectural pattern surrounded by manicured gardens. Within a few blocks of the Kala, one can visit a Sunnite Mosque, a synagogue, an Armenian Church and a Orthodox Georgian cathedral. Tbilisi abounds with churches and cathedrals, where Saint George, usually pictured spearing the dragon, is represented in many media, and revered everywhere. The surrounding 19th century houses are enhanced by intricately carved wooden balconies and painted in pastel colors. Another architectural detail special to Georgia is the elaborate iron spiral staircases that grace many courtyards, as well as the impressive repousse work that enhances the doors of many churches.
In the old town, the streets are narrow and tortuous, with cramped stalls, a feeling similar to an old Moroccan medina, although not quite so crowded. Here, one definitively feels the exotic mix of Asia and Europe. As a relief to the dense and busy alleys, a couple of wider streets have been turned into fashionable pedestrian passageways filled with cafes and restaurants, mostly for tourists, where young waiters are struggling with their English and learning to be gracious. I saw few tourists, and they were mostly British, German, and French. Walking a lot by myself, I felt totally safe and mostly ignored by people who are preoccupied with the vicissitudes of their harsh lives.
In July, the temperature is hot and somewhat humid; Tbilisi is on the same latitude as Boston.
There are several churches including the Sioni cathedral, the largest and most important building to visit in the old neighborhood. Dating from the 13th century and built on the remains of a 6th century church, it was restored many times after lootings and destructions. It is the seat of the high priests of the Georgian Orthodox Church.
Old Lenin Square is now a refurbished Freedom Square with a tall and shimmering gold statue of St. George and the Dragon marking the center of this important civic plaza surrounded by government buildings and a new Marriot Hotel with the best restrooms in the area, as long as you don’t look like a “local”. The famous Museum of Georgian Art was partially open and I enjoyed their magnificent collection of Georgian art including stunning silver and gold metalwork unique to Georgia from the 3rd. 4th and 5th century, manuscripts, weapons, glassware, vases dating from the Colchis, Greeks and Romans, Neolithic and Bonze Age implements and ceramics, and gold jewelry encrusted with rubies, emeralds, and pearls that had belonged to Queen Tamar. So many treasures showing the remarkable level of craftsmanship achieved by these most ancient people as they benefited from contacts and commerce with other parts of the world.
From Freedom Square, the still elegant Rustaveli Avenue – named after great 12th century Georgian poet is lined with trees and flower boxes, and counts many majestic neoclassical and Renaissance revival buildings, most closed during the summer or for repairs. Georgians love all the arts and have an impressive Opera and Theater season. There are also older hotels, with once elegant but now tired facades that have witnessed many parades, demonstrations, and political upheavals including the Revolution of the Roses, on November 3rd 2003 which brought the end of Shevardnadze and the beginning of the Saakashvili presidency.
On the street level there are businesses, including expensive European fashion stores, office buildings, banks, and restaurants but no department stores. Some of the vintage buildings are being converted into expensive condominiums, and luxury hotels are under construction (presumably for businessmen or well-healed tourists.) The sidewalks on Rustaveli are crowded with a more European and fashionable crowd of business men and women. Others – including more modestly dressed women with scarves on their head – make their way to a nearby church. Georgians are very pious Christian Orthodox and Tbilisi counts many religious places always filled with reverend crowds.
Lali introduced me to some of her friends, accomplished and talented poets, writers, musicians and artists, diplomats, all well-known and respected within the community but struggling to just “survive.” Her friend Guguli is a known writer and poet who writes both in Russian and in Georgian. Most educated people I met spoke both languages and the conversation often drifted in and out of Russian. Now in his late sixties he can barely survive on a meager pension.
He graciously took us to the top of the thickly wooded hills overlooking the city, above the heat and pollution. Here was a lovely surprise “Turtle Lake”. This small resort with a beach is surrounded by hiking trails quite popular during summer week-ends. On the way up we visited an impressive Ethnographic Museum displaying typical Georgian dwellings and furnishings from different regions. Almost daily, Guguli enjoys a walk around the lake and then joins his friends, other retirees, former diplomats, artists, writers, businessmen, who like to reminisce about earlier times and argue loudly about politics while enjoying a strong Turkish-style café and a cigarette. When I suggested that we invite Guguli for lunch to thank him, Lali explains that he would never accept since he cannot afford to pay for us and it would be too demeaning for a Georgian man to let a woman pick up the tab.
On July 25, we started on our 8-day trip to the Upper Svaneti region by riding the night train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi. We leave at 10:00 p.m., the four of us (including Lali, who had never travelled to Svaneti), plus Levan Dadiani. We settle into our hard couchettes but the noise, many stops, the humidity and the heat, as the air conditioning only came on sporadically, makes it difficult to get a good night sleep. A snack of delicious khachapuri accompanied by a velvety Saperavi wine helps compensate for the lack of comfort.
Zugdidi is the administrative center of the Samegrelo province. We are less than 50 miles from the Black Sea. This region was known for the cultivation of tea. Until independence, 90% of economy of the area depended on tea processing but it is now down to 15%. It is also rich in citrus fruit, vegetables, and hazelnuts. As we arrive we feel the subtropical heat and humidity.
The city is only a few miles from Abkahazia, and many Abkhazian families have found refuge in Zugdidi which is feeling the effect of this migration, while the conflict is kept alive by Russia’s playing ambiguous games in the region as well as in Ossetia.
The town was also the residence of the illustrious Dadiani family, who ruled the area in the 17th century. To our surprise and delight we find that our very own guide, Levan Dadiani, is a direct descendant of King David Dadiani, last ruler of Samegrelo. He promises to lead us on a special tour of the famous Dadiani Palace, now an important museum. on our way back from the mountains. In Zugdidi, we meet with Pridon, driver of our Russian-made van, and Beso, our guide, they will be traveling with us into the Caucasus. Both are Svans.
To Mestia and the Caucasus
From Zugdidi, it is a four hour ride to Mestia, along a rough winding road following the sharp bends of the Inguri river. We continue to climb catching spectacular glimpses of the majestic curtain of the Caucasus. I am surprised to learn that the Svaneti region boasts the major Caucasus peaks and glaciers, with ten peaks higher than the Mont Blanc, and five above 15,000 ft. The mountain slopes are covered with deciduous trees and silvery ribbons of water cascade down the deep gorges The Inguri dam, built in 1972, is most impressive, and provides power to the whole area.
Along the road, which shows signs of fresh landslides, we notice some small shrine-like structures, almost like bird-houses , featuring etched-in-stone portrait of one or two – usually young men,- who have perished on this treacherous road. People leave small offerings of wine and food on a small shelf in front of the portraits, in memory of the departed and wishing for a safe trip for themselves. We are told that too many accidents are caused by drunk driving on these dangerous roads.
We arrive in Mestia, a small town at the foot of the Caucasus. It feels more like a muddy “frontier town” than an Austrian village surrounded by spectacular mountains. It lies on the banks of the rivers Inguri and Mulakhi which flow into Tbilisi and is the administrative center for the Upper Svaneti region. Here we are discover the unique medieval architecture of these mountain villages: each village, comprised of several settlements, counts dozens of watchtowers – or rather tower-houses – mostly built between the 9th and 12th century as defensive structures against northern invaders, but also for protection from feuds between family clans.
Each tower is about 92′ high, built of granite and slate, and attached to the house. It served as a symbol of strength and standing of a family within the community. The Svans are reputed for being fierce warriors, and are respected for being a proud, indomitable, and industrious people. The men have codes of personal honor, value friendship, and respect their women.
The town of Mestia itself counted more than 100 towers, some built as late as the 19th century. The Inguri river is connected to the legend of the Colchis and of Jason and the Golden Fleece who fell in love with Medea. In one of the smaller “house-museums” we actually see sheep fleeces that were used to pan flecks of gold carried by the river from the mountains.
The winter months bring great hardships to these people who live a feudal way of life in the mountains where avalanches are very common… yet it is a region known for its many centenarians, and their longevity is attributed to their fresh and healthy diet, especially the delicious yogurt “matsoni” and the unpolluted environment.
Our first home-stay is with Dr. Eteri, a solid and energetic woman in her fifties who lives in a large house above the turbulent river. She is a physician at the Mestia hospital, but also takes in tourists during the short summer season. She makes more money from her guesthouse in one week than she is paid for one month of work at the hospital. Each home we stayed in had been approved for basic comfort: good beds – on the soft side – a working shower, and a working toilet which could be Turkish style.
Dr. Eteri had prepared a beautiful Georgian lunch including some local specialties: kubdari (bread with meat stuffing); suluguni (freshly made cheese); chisdavani (corn flour and cheese patties); stuffed peppers, and several salads made from fresh vegetables, enhanced with herbs. On another day she baked a delicious cake with fresh blueberry jam.
After recovering from our feast, we walk around the rather drab town, avoiding wandering cows and pigs, then prepare to visit Mestia’s Museum of Art and Anthropology, filled with ancient treasures spared from the Mongol invasion, including many icons and holy relics, said to have been hidden in this remote area for protection. Unfortunately, the electricity is not working. A generator is brought in, but shortly dies. The totally unhelpful and uncaring attitude of the people in charge does not help, and Lali gives them one her favorite lectures about Georgians’ responsibility to help build tourism in their country. On our way back from the mountains, we eventually visited this museum which holds priceless treasures.
To Kala and the Kvirikoba Pilgrimage
The next morning, after extricating ourselves from our very soft beds, we enjoy a great breakfast and leave for our 4 ½ drive up into the higher Caucasus massif. As we climb higher and higher the scenery is breathtaking and we hold our breath as the road becomes a real challenge: sharp turns, no guardrails, huge potholes, and signs of fresh landslides. But Pridon is an expert driver who knows the area very well.
We continue to marvel at the quaintness of the scattered villages we spot in the distance: Mulhaki, Ipari, with their dozens of watchtowers like an army of stone guardians of the valley. We stop at one of many mineral springs. Betkili, and at a look-out where we enjoy our first spectacular view of Mount Ushba’s (15,420 ft.) with its memorable twin peaks, and share a delicious picnic Eteri had prepared for us. This will be our basic picnic lunch during our daily excursions: fresh Khachapuri (stuffed with cheese or meat) suluguni cheese, slices of melt in your mouth juicy tomatoes, fresh crunchy cucumbers, hard-boiled eggs, cake and fruit. Today we even get a taste of homemade apple vodka that replaces wine in these regions.
Our destination is Kala, a tiny settlement on a mountain top from which tomorrow we will, participate in a yearly Kvirikoba Pilgrimage to the small Lagurka church of St. Kvirike, built in the 12th century on an isolated peak. On July 28 of each year, area Svans and their relatives and friends gather to celebrate the 3rd century beloved legend of early Christian martyrs: a mother Ivlita, and her 3-year old son Kvirike who were tortured to death by the Romans because they refused to renounce their faith. The site is also linked to a Pagan deity: Kviria, the earth goddess. Every year, Svans pay tribute to these Christian saints by climbing the rough stone path all the way up to the tiny church where they light candles and make wishes. This interesting mix of Pagan tales and Christian traditions is quite common in these isolated mountain regions. Because Paganism prevailed there until the 8th – 9th century, no earlier Christian ruins are left in these areas.
But first, it’s time to check in at our next lodging: the home of the Ucha Margvelani family. Kala comprises only a few family clusters with house-towers scattered around the mountain slopes, and there is no actual road leading to our family’s house. We just drive through fields, stopping to open wooden gates into another field, avoiding cows and ditches until we get to a large family compound with a spectacular panoramic view of the surrounding snow-capped peaks and the deep river gorge far below.
Lost in the mist, and seeming very far away, is the Kvirike church, our destination for tomorrow. After depositing our luggage in our rooms, we get into our hiking gear. Now out for a 4 hour walk, up and down mountain paths, surrounded by gorgeous fields with myriads of mountain flowers, a preview of the amazing variety we will encounter on all our hikes.
This area of Georgia is celebrated as a botanist’s paradise, with the mountains as the background; the scenery is breathtaking and majestic. Ceil, the serious photographer on our team, is busy clicking away. Our path leads us to an abandoned village of crumbling towers, destroyed by the Russians in 1850! This is the first of our daily treks into the most pristine and lush mountain landscape I have ever experienced. We hurry back through a rainstorm that chases the clouds down into the deep gorge, while the dreamy silhouette of the Kviriki church peeks above the mist. Are we really hiking up there tomorrow?
Meanwhile, our host family buildings are being “invaded” by a steady stream of relatives and friends who have also driven a long way through the fields, to visit, share the evening and a meal, spending the night before tomorrow’s pilgrimage. Our own dinner includes new Svaneti specialties like kubdani (meat-filled bread), a liver stew, mixed tomato, eggplant, pepper and cheese. We meet the seven daughters of this family who have grown up in this “lost” place, and are delighted to find such sophisticated, attractive and gracious young women.
We are especially entertained by Tiko, the youngest and most extroverted, who always smiles and tries to communicate in very tentative English.(Both Georgian and Russian are taught in schools, but most young people are anxious to learn English. Only two of the daughters are married, and Levan surmises that maybe the others are not because suitors could not find them!
As young children going to school meant walking hours, for many months in the snow, and now they have all graduated from Tbilisi State University! The “girls” no longer live on the family farm but do return during the summer to help their parents, especially during the Kvirikobe Festival. The people here are tall and handsome, with light skin, and some with blue eyes (the original “Caucasians”?) As visitors continue to pack into the two buildings, more and more food appears, and several meals are served with the girls constantly busy in the large kitchen/family room/sleeping quarters, preparing, cooking, serving, and washing dishes after having milked the cows. At one point, they break into spontaneous polyphonic singing and we admire Tiko’s strong and melodious voice. The father taught his daughters this difficult Georgian type of singing, the most complex coming from this area. We try to communicate, mostly with smiles, with the adults, sitting on benches in the large family room. Everyone is welcoming and gracious, and we observe a sweet closeness between family members and a joy at being together.
As we retire to our rooms, the excitement continues to build up downstairs, and more food and home made vodka are consumed at one gulp for each toast, and there are many people and occasions to toast! I struggle to fall sleep I wondering how now more than fifty people will manage with one indoor bathroom and one outhouse, but we do!
The stuffed house wakes up early and, after another delicious breakfast including my favorite freshly made yogurt, everyone gets ready for the hike down to the river bed and back up the steep hill to Saint Kvirike. Already there are clusters of people walking down the slippery path, carrying food for themselves and as offering to the saints. It is quite wet from the storm last evening. We meet giggling girls hiking in flip flops and with fashionable make-up and hairdos, stout ladies with dark scarves, older people who are moving more cautiously, but determined to make it to the church. On the other bank of the river we climb through a dense pine forest, stumbling on roots and boulders traversing the treacherous path. Families are carrying small children or pulling a goat that is on a one-way trip.
When we finally get to the top, the small building is surrounded by a moving crowd of people trying to get into the tiny church and special room where the stone walls are covered with thousands of tiny flickering yellow beeswax candles lit in memory of women who have died. Messages scribbled onto pieces of paper are stuffed into the stones, and women who have brought gifts of home made-bread and wine are offering them in prayer to the patron saint. Others are carrying an icon to be blessed by the priest. A family has set up a make-shift picnic table and deployed an amazing feast to share. On the back of the church, sheep and goats have been freshly killed and butchered as offerings to the saints. Some of the meat is being cooked in a huge pot, while a few people are carrying chunks of the bloody meat home. There are few tourists around, and we feel very privileged to be able to participate in this special celebration.
On the way down we stop in a lovely clearing to enjoy our lunch, and Pridon and Beso go hunting for some delicious wild strawberries for us.
We’re back into the van to drive to the village of Ushguli, a UNESCO World Heritage which – at 7,200 ft – claims to be the “highest continuously inhabited settlement in Europe.”
Ushguli is everything it promised to be! The village comprises 3 separate settlements nestled in the valley, each with dozens of watchtowers, surrounded by the most spectacular scenery and the massive silhouette of Mt. Shkhara, at 16,627 ft. the highest peak in Georgia, looming in the background.
Our host family is the Nizharadze family, with Lela the wife and mother, her husband Temraz, Mamuka a boy of 13 who loves football, and his sister Mariam, who is 12 and wants to be a journalist. There is also Pridon, a shy and taciturn uncle who is a well known Svan artist and whose studio is filled with an array of paintings in a “fantastic-realism” style. The people are handsome and soft-spoken and live in a simple but large house with a nearby barn attached to a watchtower. Their home is the highest in the upper village, and we have a spectacular view of the three settlements stepped all the way down into the valley, with ruins of a castle said to have belonged to Queen Tamar on a nearby peak.
A dirt path connects the family homes, and in late afternoon it is filled with cows returning from pasture to be milked. Our hosts, like each family here, have several cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens which allow them to survive during the long winter months when they are cut off from the rest of the valley. Now, we benefit from the bounty of a garden filled with fresh vegetables which Lela prepares into more delicious dishes for us. We hike to the Lamaria monastery just above us, a tiny 9th century church for which Levan gets a key from a nearby caretaker. It is surrounded by a defensive wall and protected by a nearby watchtower. Outside the wall, the village cemetery is overgrown with wild flowers. Inside, there are some once beautiful 9th century frescos which have managed to survive all these centuries, and precious icons.
A few houses down, we visit the Charkseliani Family Ethnographic Museum in a traditional watchtower-house, where, in the winter, the family members share the lower level with the animals who provide warmth. The Charkseliani family is collecting and preserving great Svan artifacts that help us imagine early life in Ushguli (although probably not so different from now.) The intricately carved wood chests, doors and chairs are a specialty of this area. From the wool of the sheep people make felt hats that are still being worn today.
As the clouds lift, we go on a 4-hour hike towards Mount Shkhara whose massive silhouette is slowly clearing up. We traverse a wet carpet of wild flowers of all colors and varieties and cross a couple of small streams cascading towards the Inguri river. There are beautiful and healthy horses and cows that spend the summer months in the pastures. We return “home” in time to watch Lela milk the cows before preparing another delicious dinner we enjoy sharing with our host Temraz. When we ask Temraz how different the quality of their life is now from what it was under the Soviet occupation, he responds thoughtfully that, although their economic situation is not better and it is probably worse “it does feel good to be free!”
With Lali as our translator, we are also able to communicate with Lela and hear her stories about their harsh life in this remote place. She told us that, when she was very pregnant with her daughter, she had to get onto a horse while there was still snow, and ride several hours down to Mestia , where she is originally from, to give birth.
Back to Mestia
It rained during the night, but morning brought clear skies and it is time to say thank you and goodbye to another of our families. On the way back we make several stops at tiny churches. Usually, Pridon or Beso need to locate the family who has the key to the building to allow us to enter. In the Khe settlement with only one household left, we visited the Church of St. Barbara (9th century) rich with 6th century icons and 12th century frescoes. Also the unusual St. George Church in Ipari with its pagan iconography of animals carved in relief onto the stone façade.
Back in Mestia and our “luxury” accommodations at Eteri’s home. Here we finally get into the Mestia Museum, filled with several centuries of Georgian masterpieces, a beautiful collection.
Levan has planned a long hike to the Chalahaadi glacier from whose tongue is born the Chala river that flows by our house. On our way into the wilderness we cross a suspended Soviet-built bridge and have to register with a Georgian Border Patrol. Since we will be hiking quite close to the Russian border we assume they want to keep track of us. Stopping for a picnic, we’re joined by the friendliest calf that seems to be looking for love, caresses and our food! The path along the river soon turns into huge piles of boulder from the glacier which makes our progress very slow. We finally reach the mouth of the glacier from which the dirty ice melts into a grayish flow that cascades rapidly into the valley.
After dinner, there is a surprise concert by a group of 30 French men and women who have come to the area for a couple of weeks specifically to study polyphonic singing with a famous local master. They perform in a, once comfortable, facility built by the Soviets some of the difficult Georgian tunes they have learned as well as songs from Corsica which also has a tradition of polyphonic singing. The area bishops have come to honor the French, and the room is filled with an appreciative audience. Local master Islam Kilpani and a couple of other musician friends also treat us to their singing, accompanied on local instruments, the chonguri and panduri, which resemble guitars.
Our day hike today towards Becho Falls and the Ushba massif has to be aborted after a couple of hours when the small streams we had to cross have turned into wild rivers fed by last night’s thunderstorm. It’s back to town and more cultural experiences: a visit to the 10th century jewel-of-a-church of Jesus Christ with great 11 and 12th century paintings, and the Museum of Mikheil Khergiani, world famous Georgian mountaineer known as “The Tiger of Rocks” who died in 1969 at age 37 while climbing in the Dolomites. Khergiani is a Georgian hero and his modest house-museum is kept with pride and devotion.
It is our last day in Svaneti, and the skies have cleared so that we can take our final hike up Mount Zuruldi to the point where Levan has promised a spectacular panoramic view of the Greatest Caucasus. It’s a 4 hour hike through an Alpine forest, then “free “walking with no trail– through shoulder-high fields of flowers and colorful butterflies landing on the brightest. At the high point, we are totally encircled by the most majestic sight of all, crowned by the Georgian “stars” of The Caucasus: Shkhara, Ushba with his twin peaks and, Tenuldi (16,427) and protected by her nine brothers.
Sharing a quiet picnic while in an almost meditative and reverent mood, our eyes are riveted on the magical gently changing scenery around us. The dissolving clouds slowly reveal more snowy peaks. This is truly a “grand finale”!
Returning to Eteri’s for another delicious meal and are in bed early to be ready for the 5:30 a.m. departure and long drive back. First to Zugdidi and we survive the “Devil’s pass” and the rest of that treacherous road, then to Tbilisi on the only highway that traverses the country from East to West, and another scary road experience!
In Zugdidi, and as promised, Levan takes us on a visit of his ancestors’ palace. He is the 12th direct descendant of the noble Dadiani family that included illustrious leaders, military men, artists, and chess players. The museum holds several impressive collections of archaeological and historical artifacts. We also visit the family’s private apartments filled with elegant memorabilia and furniture, mostly from France, including a much prized death mask of Napoleon.
After another delicious lunch of local Mingrelian specialties, we switch to a larger vehicle and drive, kamikaze style, onto the Military Highway weaving in between huge trucks carry their wares between the Central Asian States and the Black Sea. Along the highway are small towns with huge abandoned factories from the Soviet years rotting away including Gori, where Stalin was born. The 2-lane highway eventually turns into a much safer 4-lane, as we near Mtskheta, the ancient capital of East Georgia, another UNESCO world site.
The town of Mtskheta is dramatically situated at the confluent of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers, surrounded by hills that are rich with archaeological sites yet to be excavated.
It’s still light allowing a visit to the imposing cathedral of Sveti-tskhoveli, one of the most sacred places in Georgia, dating from the 5th century and surrounded by a fortification erected later on. Many Kings and rulers of Georgia are buried here. The cathedral also holds the grave of Sidonia who was said to have been buried holding Christ’s robe.
Maya, Levan’s fiancée, and another young man from the Geotrek office join us for a celebration dinner at an outdoor restaurant dramatically situated on a ledge over the river. Across from us the silhouette of the famous Jvari monastery looms on a promontory a few miles away. I visited this stunning site before leaving Georgia accompanied by Marika Nizharadze, an excellent professional guide and friend of Ceil. Dinner is plentiful with more wine and a live band playing loud Russian-style music while Georgian families enjoy the dancing.
Thee days later, on August 7th, I flew back to Paris. The next day, the Russians attacked Zugdidi and Mestia with more than one hundred tanks and troops destroying several buildings in Gori where people were killed. Dan and Ceil were evacuated to Armenia, but Lali stayed put in Tbilisi, saying that she was used to “these incidents.”
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