We left Tbilisi around 9:00 a.m. Our first destination of the day was to the David Gareja Monastery complex. The drive was going to take approximately 2 ½ hours and given the short distance I could not understand why it was going to take so long. I quickly found out why. First, the traffic heading out of Tbilisi was a little slow (OK a lot slow) as we drove on very narrow two lane roads out of the city. Second, the road to the monastery was not the best. In fact, once we passed the little town of Udabno, the road became one big rock quarry. Fortunately, the scenery made up for it.
Anyway, once we left Tbilisi, the road took us past a number of little villages before turning into farmland. That’s when the fun began. We passed herd after herd of sheep, most of which could care less if they were holding up the tourist car by hanging out in the middle of the country road. Eventually the herders took control and moved the sheep off the road, with a little help from the sheep dogs, which looked far different from the sheep dogs in Ireland. These dogs were big and fluffy and are appropriately called Georgian shepherds. And take it from me, the Georgian shepherds do not hit it off with the local strays.
The farmlands soon gave way to hilly desert like land, which kind of reminded me of the area between the Gorge and Vantage in Washington State. Once we reached Udabno, the paved road became the rock quarry. We bounced around and even detoured onto a makeshift dirt road because the potholes were so bad.
As we continued to drive through the hills covered with yellow grasses we passed a lake and a small river and came very close to the Azerbaijan border. As we climbed higher (the monastery is at 880 meters) some of the Caucus Mountains came into view. Once we passed the ancient towers that were once part of the massive monastery complex, we drove another five minutes and finally reached the monastery just before 11:30 a.m..
Now the monastery (Lavra) that we visited was founded by the Syrian David Gareja, who spread Christianity throughout the region in the 6th century. The monastery “complex” once comprised of 15 monasteries, but the monasteries were destroyed over the years by Mongols, Timur (you remember him from Uzbekistan) and then completely wiped out on Easter night 1615 when Shah Abbas’ soldiers killed 6000 monks and destroyed most of the monasteries and their contents.
Now I had the option of visiting both the Lavra monastery and the monastery at the top of a massive hill (Udabno), but it required a two plus hour hike straight up the hillside that was known for poisonous snakes. Uh … thanks, but no thanks. As a substitute, we were going to climb about 20 minutes up the hillside to the first building comprising the Udabno monastery featuring a fresco of David Gareja praying for water. After that, we would call it good.
Now the Lavra monastery was three stories high with caves where monks lived. as well as a 6th century cave church featuring the grave of David Gareja along with a number of frescos telling the story of Christianity. The monastery was under renovation, so we could only see parts of the facility. No matter, we made our way around the complex, including taking in the mausoleum of David Gareja inside the little church, before taking the the plunge and hiking straight up through the brush on a rocky path over the hillside to the watchtower overlooking the monastery. From there, we turned right and found a path that was much better and after some heavy breathing reached the first cave of the Udabno monastery. We could not go inside, but we were able to peer between the grates covering the entry to see the lovely little fresco. It was definitely worth the hike.
The hike down was a much worse than the hike up because the ground was fairly slippery and the rocks pretty uneven. Fortunately, we made it back down the hillside without incident and were back on the road by 1:00 p.m.
We ended up stopping in the little town of Udabno in order to try kubdari, a local specialty made by people from the Svaneti region of Georgia, who had established a bit of an outpost in Udabno. Now I had no idea what kubdari was, but Katiya swore by this food so I was game. In the mean time, I ended up ordering a bottle of grape lemonade and let me tell you, this was unbelievable. It was made with Georgia’s special grape, Superavi, and it was stellar.
However, the star of the show proved to be the kubdari. The dish looked like a stuffed pizza, but let me tell you it was far superior than any pizza I have ever had. The pastry was stuffed with a mixture of beef, onion and spices and cooked to a golden brown. Now I have no idea what spices were in this dish, but it was so damn tasty. The pastry came out piping hot, and the flavour of the spices in the beef lingered in my mouth long after I finished my two pieces. It was simple, but spectacular. Another Georgian dish for the ages.
After the lovely lunch, we continued our drive to the eastern region of Georgia to the area known as the Kakheti, which is Georgia’s premier wine-producing region. As we drove, we left the desert like conditions of the southern portion of Georgia and began to pass vineyards and people selling grapes on the side of the road. And you really knew you were in the wine growing region during harvest time because we kept passing massive trucks filled with grapes.
At one point, we stopped by the side of the road in the little town of Badiauri where we went into a tiny shack that was actually a bread making operation. Apparently this area is well known for its chewy, doughy breads cooked in large circular pots (very much like a tandoori oven). Now I tasted the bread and a couple cheeses and I have to say the bread was good, but not my favourite. It was VERY heavy and I doubt I could have eaten more than a few bites. However, given the fact that a long loaf of the bread was selling for the equivalent of less than $.20, I purchased a loaf for the car along with some goat cheese (which turned out to be quite good).
We continued our drive through the wine region and finally reached the little Bodbe Convent, which is the burial site of St Nino, the woman who saw St. Mary in her dreams and is credited with spreading Christianity in Georgia (along with creating the funny shaped downturned cross). The convent is still occupied by nuns and is set in a fantastic garden area.
The highlight of the site (in addition, to the magnificent views from the balcony area near the nuns’ gardens) is the small little church originally built over St. Nino’s grave in the 4th century. Since that time, the church has been renovated many times. No pictures were allowed, but the frescoes inside were spectactular.
When we entered the church, we immediately went to a tiny room off the main room of the church where St. Nino’s tomb was located. We had to bend down to see the the tomb, which was framed in silver and included a cloisonné halo. Now the church is clearly marked “no cameras” and Katiya made it clear I could not take pictures. Unfortunately, a tour group of Russian tourists came in behind us and immediately started taking pictures. Katiya kept telling people no cameras (apparently their tour guide was nowhere to be found) and when they ignored Katiya, I jumped in and pointed my index finger at the offending camera, shook my head and said neit (Russian for no). Every time I targeting the offender (always a man), they looked sheepish, put the camera away and slunk off. Be gone with you Russian peasants who offend the Georgian rules!
Katiya just laughed at me. I told her tourists who break the rules ruin it for the rest of us so I have no problem shaming tourists if they are not obeying the host country’s rules. And plus, I don’t’ have a lot of love for Russians (it’s that Canada/Russia hockey rivalry), so II had no problem shaming the Ruskies.
After the convent visit, we drove a short distance to our last stop of the day, the little town of Sighnaghi, which sits on a little hilltop overlooking the Alazani valley and the Caucus Mountiains. We ended up walking through the main square and around the little shops, before walking down the hills towards the defensive walls that were built around the original Sighnaghi fortress in 1762. Today, you can only walk a portion of the wall, although most of the wall remains intact.
As we wandered down the hill, we passed the St. Stephan Church, with a gorgeous bell tower and then passed some restaurants and bed and breakfasts before reaching the entrance to the wall. The walk was no more than five minutes long, but the views were spectacular and it was pretty cool walking on a wall that was almost 300 years old.
After we climbed down from the wall, we drove the 60 km to Telavi and my hotel for the next two nights: Schuchmann Wine Chateau, a beautiful winery overlooking the Caucus Mountains and the little town of Telavi. Now the room I was given was glorious with views over the vineyards, the swimming pool and the Caucus Mountains. And dinner in the fabulous restaurant was over the top. Cheese, bread, Schuchmann wines own saperavi (the local Georgian grape), apkhazura, a dish featuring a mix of veal and pork with a raspberry sauce that was over the top awesome and the grand finale of chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream. It’s a good thing that I spent the morning hiking mountains because I am certain I would have put on 5 pounds just from the apkhazura.
Anyway, with a glorious meal behind me and another fabulous day, it was time for bed. I needed my strength for the winery tours tomorrow.