We left Gudauri in brilliant sunshine just after 9:15 heading back south to the Uplistsikhe Cave City. The long 3 plus hour drive took us back south along the Georgian Military Highway past the gorgeous reservoir and by more sheep than I care to count towards Tbilisi before we turned east leaving the Georgian Military Highway. We traveled for a bit on a lovely modern highway before taking an exits and traveling the remainder of the drive along a narrow windy road to the little town of Uplistsikhe.
Now Uplistsikhe Cave City is an ancient city carved out of rock that sits high above the Mtkvari River. The site contains various rock structures dating from the Early Iron Age (at least 10,000 B.C.) to the Late Middle Ages. The city consisted of three parts: the lower level made up of a wall, the main road, gates and a hidden stairwell; the middle section that consisted of living quarters, storage areas, audience halls, an apothecary, bakery, wine cellars and bazaar; and the upper section that included living quarters for the noble people as well as Christian basilica built of stone and brick in the 9th and 10th centuries. The city was incredibly sophisticated for its time and included streets, water pipes, drainage channels and a system for moving goods from one section of the city to another.
Once we arrived at the cave city we climbed up a series of staircases and then we had to make our way over the soft sandstone up to the middle portion of the site where the majority of the caves were located. The first series of caves we visited were called the Theatron and included pillars and a decorated ceiling. The cave was apparently used for entertainment. (This was also one of the only caves I saw that included decorations on the ceiling.)
We then moved on and visited the Hall with Logia that included a lovely stone wall, the Apothecary that had little stone cubby holes constructed to hold medicines, Queen Tamar’s Hall, a massive room with vaulted ceilings, little carved niches and stone pillars, the bakery (which used to be a church) and the wine cellar, which included quevris. As we wandered around, we had to watch our step on the steep sandstone that sloped up the cave city hillside.
Near the top of the middle section, we visited the stone basilica church. We donned the standard scarves and church issued skirt and took a wander around the church. It was small and quite frankly was not particularly noteworthy, except for the massive view down to the valley.
At this point, we started our walk back down the sandstone hillside, but instead of leaving down the same path we had used to come up, we made our way to a nondescript little are at the far side of the hillside where we walked down to a set of stairs. The stairs led to a secret passageway that was used by the residents to hide from or escape invaders. Once we made our way down the passageway, we found ourselves very close to the river. It was amazing to think that people had been able to carve the tunnel out of the sandstone without using any heavy equipment. Simply astonishing.
After the cave city visit, we continued a few kilometers east to the the little town of Gori where we were to visit the Stalin Museum. Josef Stalin (the one time leader of the Soviet Union) was born in Gori and Stalin commissioned the museum to be built during his lifetime. However, the museum did not open until 1957 after Stalin’s death.
Katiya was able to secure a museum guide to walk around the museum with us so while the fantastic guide provided information about the sites in the museum, Katiya translated. The guide began with Stalin’s early years where he grew up very poor, ended up receiving a scholarship to a seminary school and was subsequently kicked out of University for being a member of the Marxist party and inciting demonstrations among the poor.
Over the years, Stalin befriended Lenin and was sent to prison numerous times before the Russian Revolution finally ended the Czar’s rein and Lenin took over. Stalin became a member of the Politboro in the early 1920s. In fact, we saw a questionnaire in the museum that Stalin had to fill out in order to attend the party conference. In the questionnaire Stalin answers that he was kicked out of school, had been a member of the Marxist party since 1898 and was the second member of the Politboro (after Lenin). Stalin become the leader of the Soviet Union after Lenin’s death in 1924 and continued until his own death in 1953.
The guide took us through Stalin’s governing years, including World War II where we saw pictures of Stalin during the war and with world leaders and saw pictures of Stalin’s son who was killed by the Germans during the war.
The guide provided us with a history of Stalin’s family tree and showed us pictures of Stalin’s immeidate family and his descendants. The guide then took us through the memorial room which featured a bust of Stalin and pictures of Stalin in his casket. We then entered a room that was filled with gifts Stalin had received over the years, followed by a room that featured many of Stalin’s personal effects, including his desk and office furniture, a piano and clothing.
We were then taken outside and shown the house where Stalin was raised. The building was a tiny one room house with a basement where Stalin’s father made shoes. We were also given the privilege of being permitted inside the house, which is normally locked to the outside public.
Finally, the guide took us to to Stalin’s own railway car that featured servants’ rooms, Stalin’s bathroom and bedroom, a dining area and a meeting room. It was an incredibly informative and insightful tour of a museum that was full of history. I am certain that without the guide, Katiya would have done a fine job, but it was clear that I received far more information with the museum guide than I would have without her.
We moved on from the little town of Gori, stopping briefly to have a late lunch before continuing east to Borjomi where we were going to spend the night. The drive took us through beautiful forested areas set against a backdrop of mountains and along the Mtkvari River. Just before we reached Borjomi, Katiya suggested that since it was only 4 and it was a nice day we should take the 30 minute drive to Bakuriani to see the ski resort instead of visiting tomorrow as planned. In addition, we would stop at the Timotesubani Church that was along the same route. Fine by me.
So we drove up along through the northern slope of the Trialeti Range, at an elevation of 1,700 meters above sea level up, up, up past coniferous forests to see the ski resort. Now I thought once we reached the ski resort we would take a chair lift or gondola to the top like I did at the ski resort in Azerbaijan. Uh that would be a no. Once we reached Bakuriani, all we did was drive past the ski hill and the myriad of hotels and condominiums either built or under construction and then started the drive back down the mountain. So, the trip to Bakuriani, while nice and all, was a bit of a big nothing.
However, the same cannot be said for our visit to the Timotesubani Church, a Georgian Orthodox Church a few kilometers outside Borjomi. Once we drove back down the mountain we turned off at the little village of Timotesubani. We reached the little church by driving down a very narrow little country lane adjacent to a barely visible river and abutting the gorgeous mountains. We drove past little houses and villagers standing outside drinking beer before we finally reached a wooded area where the church was located.
The church, which was was constructed between the 12th and 13th centuries, was said to have some of the best Georgian murals in the country. Now I knew about the church’s reputation, but nothing prepared me for what we saw inside. It was stunning. And interesting fact: the church was constructed in a very similar manner to the church we saw in Alaverdi (in the wine region and which is still the nicest church I have seen). This church was made of pink stone and had a beautiful domed ceiling supported by two giant pillars, arches on either side of the church and a western and southern portal.
However, as lovely as the architecture was for the building, the first impression of the church was the incredible and outright gorgeous frescoes that covered the church. The frescos were everywhere. On the pillars, above the doorway, above the alter, around the dome and on the walls. And the incredible fact about the frescos is that each fresco had been painted by a different artist. So even when I thought I saw two similarly painted frescos, I would take a closer look and realize … uh nope. Different.
Katiya and I spent about 20 minutes wandering around the little church examining all the beautiful murals before we decided it was time to head back to Borjomi. Once we got in the car, we ended up driving a couple kilometers up the mountain and taking a different route back to Borjomi. And this route was far, far nicer than the first route. The route took us through little villages and lovely little farms, through a tunnel of trees and along the river before finally reaching Borjomi.
Once we reached Borjomi, Katiya and Jakob dropped me at the guest house I would be staying in for two nights (the hotel selection in Borjomi was nothing to write home about so I elected to stay in a guest house). Now when we pulled up, I got that “uh oh” feeling because, quite frankly, the building could have used a coat of paint and looked a little suspect. But once I met the absolutely lovely Nino who showed me inside, I could not have been more wrong. Lesson learned. Never judge a book by its cover. The house was warm and cozy and my room even had a little balcony. Perfect. And to end the day, Nino even served me and a couple from the Netherlands some wine, salad, stuffed bread, cheese and cookies. A lovely way to end a rather long day.