Georgia – Tbilisi, Ertatsminda, Mtskheta, David Gareja

The last portion of our Georgian adventure brought us from Kutaisi back to Tbilisi for a day on our own before a week away in Armenia. Upon our return to Georgia, we spent a fun day with Shota up in his village of Ertatsminda which culminated in a delicious meal of grilled shashlik. Our last day in Georgia was spent seeing a few more cultural sights in Mtskheta and David Gareja. And that was it…two weeks here went by way too quickly!

Posing with Irakli, our savior in Tbilisi. He showed us where to catch the marshrutka from Tbilisi to Sadakhlo (border town to Armenia). We never would have found it without his help! Tbilisi's funky clock tower Strings of churchkhela for sale (traditional Georgian snack made with nuts, concentrated grape juice and flour) Lars' bike pose Interior dome; Tbilisi church Restaurant row in a scenic section of Tbilisi Kilims for sale in Tbilisi. Starting prices were very low...we would definitely buy a carpet here if Becky hadn't already scooped some up back in 2003! Robby and Lars share the drinking horn of a "tamada" (Georgian toastmaster) Flag portrait painting I love Georgia...words never rang so true Chacha...the essential drink of Georgia. Referred to as Georgian brandy or Georgian vodka, beware because its pretty potent stuff! Painting of Georgian men in chokha drinking out of wine horns Souvenir wine bottles St Nicholas church at Narikala Fortress Statue of Kartlis Deda; (Mother Georgia) Tbilisi's sulphur bath district View of the Abanotubani district of Tbilisi Colorful Tbilisi cafe Ramshackle building in Tbilisi Beautiful architecture abounds in Tbilisi Precarious staircase leading up to an old house; Tbilisi One of Tbilisi's many wine adverts Tbilisi city hall Our delicious dinner of Svanetian Kubdari (meat filled pie) and fried lamb Khinkali Taking the 9 am metro to a marshrutka station 13th century Ertatsminda Cathedral Interior dome of Ertatsminda Cathedral Lars, Shota and Robby chilling after hiking around Ertatsminda A lady watches over her cows; Ertatsminda With a license in his possession for only a week, Shota is ready to drive a Lada 4x4 Georgian tombstone; Ertatsminda We had to take frequent breaks to refuel the Lada Our trusty steed in the middle of the Georgian countryside After a rough drive, we arrive to this picturesque area for a hike around Ertatsminda If only there was a campfire (and we had brought our tents!). Shota and Dota show us their favorite camping spot near Ertatsminda A centuries old stone footbridge is still in use today! A monastery complex in the middle of the woods; mountains above Ertatsminda Robby smiles on our hike through the woods Pop goes the tire...thankfully there was a spare so we were back on the road in no time Shota and Iko preparing our pork shashlik dinner...freaking insanely delicious!!! Robby getting some babushka lovin' First view of UNESCO heritage 11th century Svetitskhoveli Cathedral Inner courtyard of Svetitskhoveli Cathedral Exterior carving of Svetitskhoveli Cathedral Beautiful frescoes; Svetitskhoveli Cathedral Interior scene at Svetitskhoveli Cathedral; Mtskheta Silver detail inside Svetitskhoveli Cathedral Panorama of Svetitskhoveli Cathedral Georgian dolls for sale Traditional Georgian hats Knives, wine horns and felt hats galore! 6th century Jvari Monastery Confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi Rivers; Jvari Monastery Mickey D's Georgian style. Our value meal (burger, fries and coke) cost us a whopping $1.50! George W. Bush street sign; Tbilisi Exploring Lavra monastery; David Gareja Lars and Robby at the top of Mount Gareja, dangerously close to the Azerbaijan border Udabno monastery's refectory (the monks had to kneel down to eat at the low tables); David Gareja Annunciation Church cave with frescoes of Jesus Christ and his disciples; David Gareja Robby hiking down Mount Gareja Dozens of sheep grazing the countryside Lars, Shota and Robby enjoying our last meal in Georgia This cute little puppy came to say goodbye. The look on his face was how we felt as we left Georgia! foto gallery lightboxby VisualLightBox.com v6.1

11 April – We were up by 6:30 and out the door by 7 am. Sofi couldn’t be late on her first day back from R&R! All of us hopped in a taxi to the marshrutka station where we caught a van to Tbilisi (10 Lari each). Since Sofi had to get going, we kept our goodbyes brief but thanked her so much for showing us so much of her spectacularly gorgeous country. We would never have gotten to see or do so much if it had not been for the very dear Ms Sofi Mushkudiani and her herculean efforts. The ride to Tbilisi was rather quick and before we knew it, we had reached the Okriba bus station. There, Khvicha’s friend Irakli was waiting for us (he also hails from Svaneti…those guys are definitely a tight knit family). He rescued us from the pack of taxi drivers hounding us and whisked us away to the main railway station to check on a minivan to Yerevan. We were then led on a wild goose chase throughout the city, ultimately ending up at Samgori. There, Irakli found out that a minivan departed at 8 am for the border crossing at Sadakhlo – Baghratashen with a bargain price of 5 Lari per person. Score! Then Irakli dropped us off near our hostel (Hostel Anchi) where we checked into our private quad room (a pricey 80 Lari per night split between the 3 of us). Lunch was our first priority so we headed over to Freedom Square where we ate at Samikitno (recommended by the guy working at the youth hostel). Cheap, filling and popular with Georgians…a perfect find for 3 hungry people! Afterwards we wandered around Tbilisi so Lars could check out this picturesque capital city. It was a hot, sunny day and we enjoyed being outdoors. By 7 pm, we were hungry so round two at Samikitno left us full and happy. Our meals were delicious, the beer was tasty and the bill was under 50 Lari for 3. Great restaurant and mere minutes from our hostel.

12 April – Lars had every intention of leaving his big bag behind at the Hostel Anchi but the night shift guy had been up all night long talking to a flirtatious guest until 5:30 am and he was nowhere to be found at 7 am. So he lugged his gear with him to the metro station at Freedom Square where we caught a ride over to Samgori. There, we easily found out marshrutka to the border and paid up our 5 Lari a piece. Goodbye Georgia and hello Armenia! We will be back for one last day before we fly back to Istanbul.

See Armenia section for 12 – 18 April.

18 April: It took about 5 hours for the drive from Yerevan to Tbilisi and we were dropped off at the Avlabari metro station. We had briefly considered taking a metro to Freedom Square, but it was just as easy to walk into town so we did that since it was mostly downhill. Back at Hostel Anchi, Robby got pissed off with the surly and unhelpful staff so he refused to stay there again. Plus they weren’t budging on the price, 25 Lari each for an 8 bed dorm (we had paid 80 Lari total for a private 4 bed dorm last time). So off we went in search of some other lodgings. An old babushka was sitting outside her decrepit house (the hand drawn sign was Hostel Mimoza on V. Beridze’s Str N3), and she asked if we needed a hostel. She looked kindly, didn’t speak a lick of English but had a nice smile so we said yes and ventured into her private house. 3 rooms in a compact room, free use of the kitchen, washer, and a hot water shower…we were set. We didn’t even try to negotiate the price (20 Lari each for 2 nights), and she was thrilled with our business, plying us with kisses, hugs, and cheek pinching. Super nice babushka! Becky got the brunt of her loving for some reason while the boys got plied with homemade wine. What a reception! We were hungry so we went back to our favorite Georgian restaurant where we emerged stuffed as usual. Shota met us there and discussed plans to visit his village tomorrow. He also gave us a quote of 200 Lari for our day trip on the last day (Mtskheta, Jvari, David Gareja and drop off at the airport). We readily agreed to the day trip since we had been eager to visit all those sights anyway and what better way to spend our last full day in Georgia? Shota didn’t linger, and promised to let us know if the village plans for tomorrow were a go or not after talking to his folks. Back at the hostel, we tried to get on wifi but it was really poor, unable to support multiple devices at the same time. So the boys headed over to neighboring Cactus Bar where they scored the password for wifi so we could stay connected. Sofi wanted to Skype and passed on the message that the village visit was a go, and we should meet Shota tomorrow morning at 9 am.

19 April: Even though our beds were super creaky, we slept well throughout the night and had hot water showers to wake up to this morning. We were running slightly behind schedule and met Shota a few minutes after 9 am at the Freedom Square metro station. Today we were visiting Shota’s village, Ertatsminda, located about an hour west of Tbilisi in the Kaspi District. First we had to catch a metro to the marshrutka station where we found a van heading to Ertatsminda. Shota went shopping for vegetables and pork, because today we were going to try his famous Georgian recipe of grilled pork shahlik while up in the mountain village. We were super stoked about that since we had already tried one of his pork/onion dishes in Tbilisi our second day in country. Shota is a great cook and will make some girl very lucky one day! It took an hour to reach the base of the mountain village, and thankfully we hired a taxi to take us the remaining 5 km uphill to reach his grandmother (Bebo)’s house. She lives right next to the 13th century Ertatsminda Cathedral and we were welcomed in with coffee, tea and cookies. Shota’s friend Dota joined us for an afternoon hike to a nearby waterfall, and the two of them furiously called all their contacts to try to find a vehicle they could borrow for an afternoon excursion up the mountainside. After all, Shota had recently earned his drivers license and was super eager to get behind a wheel! Back at Bebo’s, she prepared a nice lunch meal for us to munch on to satiate our hunger until the long awaited dinner of shahliki. The boys struck gold when they found someone willing to let them borrow their Lada 4×4 vehicle. Boy had this car seen better days. The windows needed to be jacked up with a screwdriver, the front seat kept sliding backwards, the rear seat wouldn’t stay in place, the tires were threadbare, and the steering wheel was all jacked up so Shota barely had control of the vehicle. And off we went. Dota’s brother Iko joined us so it was a tight squeeze with 6 of us setting out for our afternoon adventure in the Georgian countryside! At one point the car stalled, so we had to hop out and try to get it going again. It took a lof of effort and finger crossing but the car that would not die eventually roared back to life and we managed to make it to a village where we parked and hiked the remaining distance to see an old monastery, bridge, and explore Queen Tamar’s old stomping grounds. Shota proudly told us that this area was his favorite camping spot in Georgia to escape the summer heat of Tbilisi and we could easily see why. It is a beautiful corner of the country. It was well past 6 pm when we decided to head back to Ertatsminda. Little did we know but we still had another adventure ahead of us. Remember the threadbare tire mentioned earlier? We were heading up a hill when Becky noticed a wheel rolling down the road. How could she miss it? Her head was like a Garfield suction cup on the right side of the window, that’s how squished into the Lada we were! So she casually said “hey guys, our tire is rolling down the hill” moments before the wheel rim started screeching against the rocky ground. Shota immediately came to a halt and we rescued the wheel before it traveled any further. It was beyond repair, scorching hot to the touch and almost melting. Thank goodness there was a spare in the car…it would have been a helluva long ass walk up the mountain to get back home! Shota was pretty damn proud of himself for getting us back safely and he should have been..that Lada was in no way, shape or form road worthy!!! Back at Bebo’s, we all stood around while Iko and Shota prepared our shashlik dinner. It was ridiculously tasty. Grandma had smothered the meat in an onion sauce all afternoon long and the skewers dripped with juices as we grilled them over an open fire. Freaking amazing and well worth the long anticipated wait! We ate until we were about to burst, and then had to rush off to head back to Tbilisi. Shota had arranged for his friend to drive us back into town and we didn’t want to keep him waiting. It was still a long day since we didn’t get back to our homestay/hostel until almost 10 pm.

20 April: Damn, today is our last day in Georgia! Its amazing that two weeks flew by so quickly. We were up and packed and ready to go before 9 am and our Georgian babushka smothered us with goodbye hugs and kisses. Dunkin Donuts was the pick up point, and we loaded up all our gear into the trunk of the car before heading directly towards Mtskheta, the headquarters of the Georgian Orthodox Church. We had arrived so early that the parking lot attendant hadn’t even shown up to work yet, so we got to park for free. Visiting the Sveitskhoveli (life giving pillar) cathedral was first on our agenda. This holy of holies is considered one of Georgia’s most sacred places, with the graves of many of Georgia’s ancient kings. One of them is believed to have been buried with Jesus’ robe. From here, we drove up to the nearby 6th century monastery of Jvari. Here, there is a phenomenal lookout point of the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi Rivers. It is clearly evident because one river is black and the other is white, so the merging of the two rivers is quite dramatic. It was lunch time when we backtracked towards Tbilisi. Lars was keen on a Georgian football t-shirt and we wanted to eat Mickey D’s, ever since we saw an unbelievable special advertising a sandwich, fries and coke for a mere 3.45 Lari (about $1.50)…bargain! So McDonalds it was for lunch and Shota told us its a very popular restaurant in Georgia, especially at night! It was pretty packed during lunch time, and we enjoyed our tasty meals. Lars scored his coveted soccer t-shirt for 30 Lari and then we were off to our final stop of the day, the rock hewn Georgian monastery complex of David Gareja, located on the mountain slopes of Gareja near the Azerbaijan border. The road to get out there was good at first and then turned quite rough. It was a bit overcast when we pulled up and explored the Lavra monastery, built on 3 levels. In retrospect, we should have taken advantage of the cloud cover and hiked up to Udabno cave complex first because it was a hot, sweaty walk up the side of the mountain when we were finally ready to go. The strenuous mountain climb was worth it though to see the amazing frescoes inside the caves. Udabno is full of monastic living quarters, cells, churches, chapels, and a refectory. From the top of the mountain, we could see that we were dangerously close to the Azerbaijan border. In fact, there were two guards patrolling the area so we made sure not to point our cameras towards them. Shota had suffered a nose bleed at Lavra, so he didn’t join us on the hike uphill. But we had been gone so long that he was worried we had gotten in trouble with the Azeris so he called frantically asking for a status update. We reluctantly hurried our visit and were down the mountainside by 5 pm. Our last request before getting dropped off at the airport was a cheap meal at a local restaurant because we didn’t want to get price gouged at the airport. Shota complied and found us a great restaurant where we ordered a platter of 3 pork barbecues…delicious! We are definitely going to missed the grilled meats of Georgia. A little puppy begged for treats and he was so well behaved that we just had to feed him our leftovers. And then that was it…we were off to the airport and our Georgia adventure was gone an instant. We thanked Shota repeatedly for showing us a great time in his beautiful country and made promises to return again in the summer time, so we could explore more of what Georgia has to offer. Our Georgian experience would have been completely different if not for the efforts of Sofi, Shota, Giorgi and countless other wonderful people we met during our time here. Georgia goes down as one of the top 10 countries we’ve ever visited…we wouldn’t hesitate to go back!

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