“Welcome to Georgia” was the greeting from
the stamp-wielding immigration official – always a good sign. He even tutted at
the handiwork of his Uzbek counterpart when he discovered that the entry and
exit stamps from there had not been neatly placed next to each other in our
passports. Friendly AND organised, yey!
It should’ve been the easiest and quickest border crossing of the trip, except
the Azeri truck x-ray revealed something very odd: a bionic cat (?!). Will was
so baffled that he asked them to scan it again. But there it was, with
individual vertebrae, cat-shaped and nesting impossibly in the space where the
ceiling meets the wall. A total mystery!
The persistent heavy rain that had been with us since leaving Baku continued
into Georgia, curtailing any plans for a forest camp and instead giving us our
first taste of Georgian hospitality at a couple of homestays in Lagodekhi. Our
unflappable guide, Zaza, adapted quickly to the change of plan and soon had us
pointed in the right direction for dinner options.
Just outside of town is a nature reserve which was to be the next day’s
challenge for those prepared to get wet.
|A very pretty and very drenched forest|
|Obligatory doggy companion|
|Nice umbrella Rob & Jen!|
|Quasimodo, I mean Julia, negotiating the swollen river edge|
|Julia, Jo & Ed getting assistance from their guide|
|One of our generous hosts with the finished mushroom product|
|Ratty & Rosie drying out|
|Who needs a calculator?|
I’m not sure, but we think Ed may have cut his leg on the walk…
Anyway, a short drive along narrow, hairpin bends and cloud-smothered roads
took us to Sighnaghi. Here we were in homestays again, this time with extremely
narrow doors! It made me wonder if they have a hidden camera, waiting for
someone with a backpack to get pinned in the doorway like a turtle…
Our delicious group meal slash wine tasting evening involved some fancy dress,
due to it being Halloween. The Origami Army made masks for everyone but they
tended to hamper the wine drinking and were soon discarded. Sorry, priorities!
Telavi isn’t far from Sighnaghi so we took
our time, meandering the backroads for a bit of history and, you guessed it, more
wine. First stop was the monastery at Gremi, which dates back to the 16th
Then it was onto Napareuli for very
informative introduction to Georgian wine making. We were also given the chance
to try chacha, the local firewater. The food presented to us was incredible and
was to become the physical representation of the Georgian generosity throughout
our stay. That and the vast quantities of wine provided everywhere. A huge
percentage of the population make their own wine and are understandably proud
of their long wine-making history.
Kvevris are earthenware
vessels still used in Georgia today for the making, aging and storing of wine.
They are either buried in the ground or set in the floors of wine cellars, and
come in a variety of sizes, from 20 litres to 10,000 litres.
|Cross section of a working kvevri|
|Tops of buried kvevris|
|Everyone getting a bit merry!|
|Julia, Jen, Rob & Peter|
Just as we were all starting to look a bit vampiric from lack of sunlight,
Georgia pulled her socks up and let us see the stunning vistas at last. Waking
up in Telavi, a glance out the windows revealed the snow-capped Caucasus
Mountains along the horizon. Eagerly, we piled into Penelope for the short drive
to Tbilisi. The road wound its way up into the hills more, towards a clear
frosty line in the forest… and then we were in a winter wonderland, bathed in
|Will & Rob the Elder having a snowball fight|
|What a mood lifter!|
|Martha, ready to engage|
|Georgian script is intricate and looks rather like something Tolkien would come up with|
Tbilisi, which hit the international news back in June after deadly floods
helped a number of zoo animals to escape, is a funky place with plenty to keep
our bunch occupied for the 2 night stay. Zaza led a city tour soon after we
arrived so everyone could get their bearings.
|King of the Castle, John|
|Jen & Rob|
|Locals getting a bit handsy|
|Marie getting Central Asia off her boots|
|A Churchkhela store. It's made from grape must, or juice, nuts (almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts or sometimes raisins) and flour. The nuts are threaded on a string, dipped in grape juice and dried in a sausage shape|
|The KGB bar|
There’s some great graffiti/street art around:
|Light and music fountain show|
|Rob the Elder was pleased with his feast of chicken!|
Our next destination was Kutaisi, considered by some historians to be the final
destination of Jason and the Argonauts. On the way we had two stops scheduled
and with bonus unscheduled Ed-related drama, it turned out to be quite a
We couldn’t drive through Gori without stopping to learn (albeit an unbalanced
account) of its most famous son at the Stalin museum. Just as tickets were
being bought, it became apparent that Ed wasn’t doing so well. Remember I said
we thought he may have scratched his leg in the forest? Despite his best
efforts to put a brave face on it, he’d developed a nasty infection which, as
the diagnosis later showed, had spread through his whole body. Yikes. So, off
to the hospital, with Kat and Zaza in attendance.
A little shaken, we continued our tour, before having lunch and driving up the
road to see the ancient rock-hewn town of Uplistsikhe (best pronounced while
doing your best Sean Connery impersonation).
|A young Stalin, quite handsome for a cobbler's son-turned-dictator|
|Stalin & Lenin|
|Stalin's railway carriage|
|Peter, whose disdain for Stalin outstripped everyone else's!|
|A decadent mid-drink drive (not for the crew though!)|
|A good place to build your rock-hewn town|
|John, Eamonn & Kent|
|Kent enjoying the sunshine|
Kutaisi provided the last homestay of the trip, the host family outdoing themselves with the khachapuri and breakfast spreads. Georgia is not somewhere you come to lose weight. With news from the hospital, it was decided that Ed and Kat would stay behind until Ed was well enough to catch up with the trip in Istanbul.
Most of the rest of the group made the most of the free day by going on a tour of two monasteries and the Prometheus Caves, a seriously impressive section of walkable caverns about 20km out of town.
|The fountain, Kutaisi|
|1,140km from Istanbul|
|Descending into the caves|
Before we knew it, our time in Georgia was drawing to a close. Batumi, on the
Black Sea coast, was our final stop and we enjoyed the laid-back, seaside
atmosphere. Another free day gave the group time to explore the town with its
nifty architecture, to visit the botanical gardens, or even take a bracing
swim! Zaza joined us for a final Georgian meal as a group – he’d been spending
quite a lot of time either going to or conversing with the hospital, bless him.
|Eugene & Rob the Elder brave the Black Sea in November|
|Martha lining up the perfect shot|
|Rob playing with his food|
Massive shout-out to Zaza for being cool, calm and collected, as well as
extremely informative and kind, and for going above and beyond in making
arrangements for Ed and Kat. Thank you!