A STEP BACK IN TIME // Davit Gareja, Georgia

Most research into sights to see in Georgia will flag Davit Gareja (or Gareji) as a must visit, and with good reason. The semi desert area in the Kakheit region straddles the border with neighbouring Azerbaijan, and offers a chance to freely explore ancient monasteries carved in the very rock of the rolling hills. I was unsure if we would be able to fit a trip in our itinerary, but luckily we were able to work it into our visit to Sighnaghi.

A few notes on visiting Davit Gareji:

  • Getting there: The visiting area for the monasteries is a bit over two hours from Tbilisi, and is best accessed via a tour, with the cheapest and easiest reportedly being Gareji Line. Due to the rough road, not all taxis will drive out. Marshrutky can take you to the nearby village of Udabno, and it is an 8km walk from there. We organised a tour through our homestay in Sighnaghi (Zandarashvili Guest House), including a transfer back to Tbilisi, and this worked out perfectly for us.
  • Facilities: Other than a small shop ran by the resident monks selling religious trinkets, there is nothing in terms of tourist infrastructure. Bring snacks and read up on how to explore the complex before arriving.
  • Exploring David Gareji: Fully exploring the two monasteries of Lavra and Udabno takes at least two hours, and involves hiking on rough, and at times steep, tracks. A reasonable level of fitness and good shoes are recommended.

The first thing that struck me upon arriving at Davit Gareji was the alien landscape of the semi desert area. The green hills were broken with exposed rock (or dirt?) that was almost rainbow in colour. Unfortunately the weather was a bit overcast again, so my photos cannot do the landscape justice!

The first part of Davii Gareji we glimpsed was Lavra Monastery (photos above), a large rocky outcrop and surrounding buildings that is still inhabited by monks.

We bypassed Lavra at first, following a rough path behind a watchtower to the left of the buildings up the hill. Eventually, the path reached a metal rail, to the right of which was the below small building, and the left, a trail leading downwards towards the Azerbaijan border and the Udabno Monastery.

The Udabno Monastery is a series of caves carved out of the rocky hillside, that looks down onto the Azerbaijan plains.

A track leads the way below the base of the caves, which one can freely explore, at your own risk. The caves feature painted frescoes that date back to 10th and 13th century.

One could easily spend hours exploring each and every room of the monastery. Some caves were quite simple, whilst others went several rooms deep and featured well maintained paintings of various religious figures.

The view over the plains of neighbouring Azerbaijan were pretty spectacular, even on a cloudy day. We felt a very long way from civilisation, with only the occasional truck rumbling along a distant road below.

Davit Gareja is actually partially located in Azerbaijan territory, resulting in a border dispute between the two countries. Whilst there is no active danger in visiting the site, it is worth noting that you will encounter some very bored looking border guards with very large weapons!

After wandering the trail as far we dared, we followed a trail down from behind the hut occupied by border guards. This led us back to Lavra Monastery.

We entered Lavra from near the carpark. After the vast array of caves in Ubadno, it felt very small!

After around two hours of explorations, it was back onto the road to head back to Tbilisi.

I was unsure what to expect with Davit Gareja, especially given we didn’t know if we were going to be able to visit the monastery complex until 24 hours before! Working it into our journey back from Sighnaghi worked really well, in addition to allowing us to see more of the Georgian countryside that was vastly different to the area around Sighnaghi.

But next, from the semi-desert to the mountains!

– Reanna

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A RAINY DAY IN KAKHETI // Kakheti Region, Georgia

Whilst Sighnaghi is a beautiful town, it is quite small, so if you have a day or two in the region, like we did, it is worth organising a tour to explore the countryside. Our host at Zandarashvili Guest House offered for his brother, Giorgi to take us on a tour around the larger Kakheti region. 30 minutes, a detailed map, and a glass of wine later with Giorgi later, and we were set for our tour! It is again worth noting that we were in Georgia at the end of winter, so whilst we ended up having a private tour, these tours generally cater for bigger groups during the summer months.

But first off, a traditional Georgian breakfast at our guest house. Bread, cheese, various jams, eggs, salads, and homemade yoghurt.

Our first stop was Bodbe Monastery, which is only a few kilometres out of Sighnaghi. According to reports from other travelers, the monastery is easy to walk to from the town.

We befriended both the resident cat and dog.

There are a number of buildings and gardens that make up the main complex, in addition to a long, long set of stairs that descend into a nearby valley to the below building, which houses St Nino’s spring. According to local legend, St Nino (an enlightener of Georgia) prayed and subsequently created this spring, which is said to have healing properties.

Our second stop was down a small country lane to Gurjaani Kvelatsminda Monastery. It was eerily quiet when we visited, until a monk popped up out of nowhere as we were leaving!

After a few monasteries, it was definitely time for some wine. Giorgi spoke at length about how he and his family make their own wine as if it was a regular household product (which is absolutely is in Georgia!). He was genuinely shocked when Chris and I informed him that wine making is primarily restricted to commercial wineries in Australia!

Our first wine stop was the Numisi Wine Museum, located in the village of Velistsikhe.

We assumed it was just going to be a cellar door, but Giorgi took us on a tour of the owners extensive collection of ancient viticulture tools and retro house hold goods!

It was not what were expecting, but it was incredibly interesting nevertheless.

After walking through the makeshift museum, Giorgi gave us an overview of the traditional Georgian process of making wine, which involves a natural method of underground fermentation. Additionally, we were shown the above contraption used for creating chacha, which is brandy made from grape skins.

Then it was time for wine (and chacha) tasting, as well as a simple lunch of bread, cheese and eggplant.

Next, it was onto a more commercial winery, Koncho & Co. The tour and wine tasting here was a bit more reminiscent of cellar door visits in Australia. Below, you can see some (now disused) clay vessels used for fermenting wine. An adult could easily fit inside!

From wine, it was back to monasteries. Giorgi demonstrated some terrifying Caucasus driving up narrow, windy roads to take us to Nekresi Monastery, which offered views over the surrounding countryside. The weather had taken a turn, with rain and fog impeding on our views.

Oh, and apparent the monks at this monastery also made their own wine! Above is an example of an old wine cellar, with the openings in the floor leading to the clay vessels where wine is traditionally fermented.

Giorgi had one last monastery on our route, or rather, a royal citadel. Gremi was once the capital of the Kingdom of Kakheti in the 16th and 17th century. Nowadays, the site features a small museum and lookout tower, in addition to a rather intact royal toilet.

Our final stop of the day was Winery Khareba. After the local wineries we had seen earlier in the day, this stop was a bit of a let down, being a tourist hub of sorts for the region. Entry was via one of the available tour options, which included a short guided tour of the underground tunnels used to cellar the wine. The place was loud and full of tourists, and the wine was mediocre, but the tunnels themselves were interesting.

These last few photos are from our final morning in Sighnaghi, when I took a quick walk around the town before we hit the road for our next adventure. It was a misty morning, which added an eerie mountain feel to the little town.

All-in-all, Sighnaghi and the broader region of Kakheti were well worth the visit whilst in Georgia, offering a chance to learn about the history of wine in the region, explore some more of the beautiful countryside, and enjoy the wonderful hospitality Georgians have to offer.

– Reanna

WINE COUNTRY // Sighnaghi, Georgia

Georgia is home to one of the oldest wine regions in the world. Whilst Chris and I are certainly no wine connoisseurs, we do enjoy partaking in the occasional wine tasting.

The Kakheti region in eastern Georgia is the renowned home of Georgian wine, and even the alleged birthplace of the drink (though don’t day that in front of the Armenians). Sighnaghi is the most easily accessible, and the most picturesque, town in the region, and was one of the highlights of our trip to the Caucasus.

A few notes on visiting Sighnaghi:

  • Getting there: Whilst day tours exist, the easiest and cheapest way to get to the region is via marshrutky (local minibus). Marshrutky from Tbilisi to Sighnaghi depart every two hours from Samgori metro station – exit the station and walk 300m west of the station to carparks full of vans. Head to the second carpark. The marshrutky for Sighnaghi are signed in English, though drivers are extremely helpful and will direct you to the awaiting bus. The journey takes under two hours and costs 6 lari (3 AUD), which we paid the driver on arrival. Marshrutky arrive/depart Sighnaghi behind the police station, near a soccer field.
  • Accommodation: There are a few hotels, though the best way to experience the region is to check out a local homestay. We stayed at Zandarashavili’s Guesthouse and it was excellent.
  • Getting around: Everything in the town is withing walking distance. If you want to explore the greater Kakheti region, chat to your homestay hosts! Google maps only showed the two main streets of Sighnaghi whilst we were visiting (March 2018), so taking a photo of the painted street map near the marshrutky stop can be useful.

After surviving our first marshrutky journey, navigating the hilly streets of Sighnaghi, and checking into our homestay to the views above, Chris and I were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves! Faintly in the distance, we could see the Caucasus Mountains, marking the border with Russia.

As mentioned above, we stayed at Zandarashavili’s Guesthouse and I cannot recommend this homestay enough. Within minutes of arrival we were being plied with home made wine, fresh cheese and bread. Georgian hospitality at its finest!

Eventually we ventured out to explore what the little hilltop town of Sighnaghi had to offer. The town is very small, and easy to explore on foot in a couple of hours.

One of the main sights are the old walls, which you can climb and explore on the northwest side of town.

Soon it was time for more wine. We visited Okro’s Natural Wine, which featured a small cellar door and a beautiful deck with stunning views of the town.

Just up the hill from Okro’s was another old watch tower.

Before too long we began our search for food. Being the end of winter, the town was a lot quieter than normal, so a number of restaurants were closed. We checked out Pheasant’s Tears, a winery/restaurant just up from the main square. Whilst a bit more expensive than your typical Georgian fare, it was a delicious meal, offering a slightly more modern take on traditional Georgian cuisine.

Our first afternoon in Sighnaghi was a wonderful introduction to the Kakheti region. I can only imagine how beautiful (and busy!) it must be in the summer months!

– Reanna

 

TOURING TBILISI OLD TOWN // Tbilisi, Georgia

There is something about the excitement of seeing a new country or city that can give you the energy to pull through fatigue. Long haul flights, late nights, and jet lag have pushed me close to the edge whilst traveling, but I think sleeper trains take the cake in terms of sleep deprivation for me. When we arrived in Tbilisi, Georgia, after a long, sleepless night on a sleeper train from Yerevan, Armenia, I was sure that I wouldn’t last the day!

Thankfully, through the power of Georgian food and sights, we were able to have an incredible first day in Tbilisi! Due to how we had planned our trip in Georgia, we came and went from Tbilisi a number of times, spending a total of three nights in the city. These photos are from our first two days, which we spent predominately in the Old Town of Tbilisi, the most popular area to visit. As you can see below, the view from our guesthouse set the standard for our time there!

As per usual, I took far too many photos during our stay, so I have organised them into a rough guide of exploring the Old Town of Tbilisi.

1. Walking tour of the Old Town

Taking free walking tours takes me back to exploring Europe whilst on exchange! Whilst Sandemans doesn’t exist in the Caucasus, a number of free tour companies run in Tbilisi. We found it a great way to get a feel of the old town.

The narrow laneways of the Old Town range from heavily overrun by tourists, to crumbling back streets inhabited by locals!

We visited a number of churches on our tour, including the above Orthodox church. Whilst plain on the outside, the churches featured elaborate paintings on the inside.

A peculiar sight in the Old Town is the Clock Tower, or the ‘Leaning Tower of Tbilisi’. Created by the puppet master of a local theatre, the structure looks like something out of a fairy tale!

2. Abanotubani

The famed sulphur baths of Tbilisi can be recognised by the brick domes rising out of the ground near the Meidan Square. Any tour or guide book will be quick to tell you that the name Tbilisi derives from the Old Georgian word for ‘warm’, referring to the location of the city over sulphur hot springs.

In addition to being pretty to look at, the sulphur baths are also quite an experience to visit. The bath houses range from dirt cheap public baths, to private but barren rooms, to ornate guest houses (such a the one decorated as a mosque below). We ended up visiting a bath house in our last stay in the city – but that story is for another day!

It is worth following the path along the creek beside Abanotubani for a view of cliff top houses.

The path ends at the Leghvtakhevi Waterfall, a beautiful slice of nature hidden within a bustling city.

3. Peace Bridge

This intriguing piece of modern architecture is worth visiting more for the views along the Mtkvari River, rather than the bridge itself. When we visited it was swarming with selfie sticks, so we made a quick journey across.

4. Rike Park

For the best views of the Old Town and the old Narikala Fortress, cross over the river at the Peace Bridge to Rike Park. It was a bit grey and cloudy on the morning we were exploring the city, but the views of the colourful buildings of the Old Town were still fantastic.

5. Cable Car

If your legs aren’t up for the climb to Narikala Fortress, a cable car departs from Rike Park for a mere 1 lari (0.5 AUD). The trip takes only a matter of minutes, but if you hate heights like me, that is long enough!

6. Mother Georgia

A short walk from Narikala Fortress is the imposing Kartlis Deda, or ‘Mother Georgia’. Worth a quick visit, plus she has a pretty damn good view of the city.

7. Narikala Fortress

Dominating the hill overlooking the old town is the crumbling Narikala Fortress. Built in the 4th century by the Persians, most of the fortress is in ruins, with the expection of the recently rebuilt interior church.

It is free to enter and explore the fortress, which offers the absolute best views of the Tbilisi. Be warned – the walls are able to be climbed but there is little around in terms of safety railings!

8. Botanical Gardens

Located behind Narikala Fortress, the expansive botanical gardens were well worth a visit. It felt like a completely different world to the city we had spent the morning exploring.

We walked right to the end of the gardens, and found ourselves peering into the back of a very modern, very extravagant house! Further investigation revealed that this is the residence of Bidzina Ivanishvili, a former prime minister and the richest man in Georgia.

9. Eat all the Georgian food

Georgian cuisine is not something we had ever encountered here in Australia, but eating out in this country was undeniably one of the highlights of our trip. Even if some of the food, such as the churchkela (walnuts candied in grape juice) below looked questionable!

Some of our favourites included khinkali (soup filled dumplings, seen above), lobia (beans in a claypot), Georgian salad (tomato and cucumber covered in walnut sauce), and any combination of baked bread available at hole in the wall Georgian bakeries. Everything we ate was fresh, simple, and absolutely delicious.

And yes, extensive walking is required to keep up with this carb heavy Georgian diet!

– Reanna

PAST & PRESENT // Yerevan, Armenia

Our third and final day in Armenia was spend exploring the streets of Yerevan further. We had tossed up the idea doing another half day trip out of the city, but we left things too late to organise, and we weren’t feeling adventurous enough to attempt public transport!

We had an overnight train to Georgia ahead of us, so we decided to wear ourselves out as much as possible by walking all around the city.

From the city centre, we mazed our way towards to Tsisernakaberd, the Armenian Genocide Memorial. Our route talk us past brandy factories (above), churches, and crumbling Soviet apartment blocks.

The genocide memorial is located prominently on a hill overlooking Yerevan. The memorial itself is made up over a number of sombre concrete structures, representing the lives and land lost to as a consequence of the genocide.

Nearby to the main memorial is a garden filled with trees planted by visiting dignitaries, groups and politicians who acknowledge the genocide. Below this is the genocide museum, which is well worth a visit. I admittedly knew very little about the genocide, and learnt a great deal from the informative and confronting exhibits.

From the memorial we made our way back to the city centre via the very old, very noisy, and very cheap metro.

We climbed back up the art centre for further views. It was less clear on this day, so Mt Ararat was completed hidden from view. As we climbed further up the art centre, it became clear that construction perhaps wasn’t quite finished!

Our next stop was Mother Armenia, who stands in Victory Park overlooking the city. Replacing a former statue of Stalin, Mother Armenia symbolises ‘peace through strength’.

Whilst making our way back through Victory Park, we came across what appeared to be an abandoned theme park… except it wasn’t really abandoned, but rather closed for the winter months. All of the rides looked as if they were built at least two decades ago, and probably wouldn’t pass safety regulations in some parts of the world!

We spent the remainder of the afternoon exploring the back streets of Yerevan, entering a museum here, and visiting another church there.

Eventually we needed to rest our feet, and stopped off for beers near the Opera House, before collecting our bags and making our way to the Yerevan Railway Station to board our train to Tbilisi, Georgia – another adventure in itself!

I feel as if we only just scratched the surface of this little country. Yerevan was beautiful, with a long and at times dark history, but a strong and enduring culture, which can be viewed through its beautiful countryside, the eclectic collection of buildings in the city, and the people themselves.

– Reanna

MONASTERIES & MOUNTAINS // Around Yerevan, Armenia

We only had three days and two nights in Armenia, and we only just scratched the surface of this little country! Even with our short time frame, we managed to squeeze in a quick day trip out into the Armenian countryside.

The easiest way to get out of Yerevan for a day trip is by hiring a driver or joining a tour. If we had a been a bit more organised, we could have joined a preorganised tour, however this limits where you can go. We stayed at Yerevan Hostel and they were able to organise a driver for us to a number of destinations we chose of a list. The price was per car, so this can be a relatively affordable option if you are in a group of 3-4 people. The most popular day trip out of Yerevan is to visit Garni and Geghard monasteries. However, we opted to check out a few destinations to the South of Yerevan.

Our first stop was Khor Virap Monastery, located in a small village about 30km from Yerevan. One of the best features of this monastery was the stunning views of Mt Ararat in the distance, over the border in Turkey. We were treated to a wonderfully clear day, so had great views of the peak.

The monastery itself is a relatively large complex with a variety of buildings to explore. The above is the main church, which dates back to the 17th century.

Whilst exploring one of the smaller chapels, we heard voices coming from below us. After a bit of searching, we discovered there was small entrance in the side of the building (see above), with a ladder leading down to a tiny… dungeon?

After some hesitation on my behalf, we made the terrifying descent into the dungeon. It was a very eerie experience – according to Armenian legend a saint was imprisoned in this dungeon for twelve years by the king of the time.

After exploring the monastery complex, we followed a path up a nearby hill for some further views of the surrounding countryside.

Oh, and more views of Mt Ararat – how could you ever get sick of looking at it?!

A man at the top of the hill attempted to sell Chris and I a pigeon to release for good luck. We declined.

Driving through the Armenian countryside was an experience in itself. Everyone apparently drives like a rally race car driver in the Caucasus, which can make journeys on the road a nail biting experience! The passing landscapes were also beautiful, from dry fields to snow capped peaks. We were in the region in mid-March, which was the end of winter, so the land was quite brown and bare.

Our second stop took us down a narrow road through looming cliffs to Novarank Monastery.

The buildings at the Noravank complex date back to the 13th century, though they were recently renovated. The sun continued to shine for us, so the entire experience of the visiting this complex with the surrounding wild landscape was surreal.

The Armenian alphabet is unique, and incredibly old – dating back to 405 AD and still used today.

Okay, so obviously I went a bit overboard in taking photos at Novarank. But how could I not with these views?!

Our final stop for the day was Areni Winery, located just up the road from Novarank in a small road side village. We were ushered into a tasting room and promptly tasted about twenty wines and a variety of fruit brandy!

The winery we visited is located near the site of Areni-1 Winery, a 6000 year old cave where the remains of wine have been found.

Whilst driving through Armenia, we noticed many road side stalls selling vegetables and reused plastic bottles filled with wine. Chris read that locals often sell their wine in old Coke bottles so Iranian truckers driving through Armenia can take wine across the border. When we were tasting wine at Areni, a group a truckers dropped in and bought a number of such bottles for what we can only imagine was a very cheap price!

The drive back to Yerevan was just as picturesque, and we spent our evening indulging in even more delicious Armenian food (again, no photographic evidence – I was too focused on eating!).

– Reanna

ARRIVING IN ARMENIA // Yerevan, Armenia

And finally, part two of our recent overseas holiday – the Caucasus! Admittedly I knew next to nothing about this region, until Chris suggested that we visit Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan when we pulled out of going to Iran. Initially this suggestion was based on flights and accessibility from Dubai, but the Caucasus soon became a destination we were excited to visit, and with good reason! This region is such a fascinating melting pot of East meets West, with a long history of conflict, and a rich culture.

We flew into Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, from Dubai. An important note when visiting this region is that the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan is closed (at the time of writing, May 2018). As such, visiting the region will require careful consideration about visas and which order you visit the neighbouring countries!

I took a few snaps out the window of our flight, as the mountains of Iran were spectacular. And below – the legendary Mt Ararat! Whilst technically within the border of Turkey (another border closed to Armenia), Armenians consider the mountain “on loan”.

We arrived late in the morning, and after checking into our accommodation and indulging in our first delicious Armenian meal, we hit the streets for some exploring. Our first stop was the Vernissage Market, an open air market selling locally made wares and all matter of pomegranate paraphernalia (but more on that later).

We decided to head towards to main railway station in order to book our tickets in advance for an overnight train, taking a number of stops on the way. Below – the GUM Market, which sold everything from clothes, vegetables, fish, and all manner of dried fruit. The vendor, whose stall is pictured below, allowed us to try a number of delicious dried fruit and nut combinations, before convincing us to buy one of the mysterious looking logs you can see hanging up. Advertised as “Armenian snickers”, it was a type of sweet made out of walnuts and dried grape juice. Surprisingly delicious!

After successfully purchasing our train tickets, we power walked back to the city centre to join a free walking tour.

The tour began at Republic Square, a large crossroads in the middle of the city surrounded by various government buildings, museums and hotels. Some of the older buildings were adorned with pomegranates, which our guide explained to be somewhat of a national fruit.

Yerevan looks very much as if it was still crawling out of the communist era, with its grey apartment blocks, ancient Lada cars, and rattling metro. But it all added to the charm of the place!

The above building is an example of a crumbling traditional house, now inhabited by artists (or so our guide thought), and was only a short walk from the main shopping strip below.

We traveled to Armenia in mid-March, which is the end of winter in the region. As such, many of water features in the city weren’t in action. Above would typically be the ‘Swan Lake’ in Summer, located in front of the Opera House, which you can see below.

One of our final stops in the tour was the beautiful Cascade, a giant stone step garden that houses the Cafesjian Centre for the Arts.

The outside of the Casecade features various sculptures, ranging from more traditional busts to bright blur kiwi birds. Inside the art centre is also free enter, and includes escalators that can take you to the numerous terraces. Unless, of course, you want to climb the stairs!

The top of the Cascades offers some stunning views over Yerevan. It was cloudy in the evening whilst we were there, so we could only faintly make out Mt Ararat in the distance.

Our final stop for the tour was one of the many Armenian churches tucked between the apartment buildings of Yerevan. Our guide informed us that many such churches were used as storage during the Soviet times, but have now returned to their former glory.

Yerevan is a reasonably small city, so it felt as if we were able to cover a lot of ground on our first day. Our walking tour went for around three hours, and ticked off many of the main sights we hoped to see, and helped us get our bearings in the city. But more Armenian adventures are to come!

– Reanna