There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Monday, 18 August 2014

Up the Georgian Military Highway: Part 8 of From the Caspian to the Black Sea

Driving north through Tbilisi we were soon free of the city. For a few kilometres we followed the dual carriageway heading for Batumi and the Black Sea but soon turned off to follow a small road climbing the bare hillside to our right.

Jvari Church sitting on a bald hillside above Mtskheta

At the top is the little Jvari (Holy Cross) Church. It was upon this spot high above the confluence of Tbilisi's Mtkvari River and its tributary, the rather more pronounceable Aragvi, that King Mirion erected a wooden cross after his conversion by St Nino in the fourth century. Four hundred years later Stepanoz I, duke of Kartli (this region of Georgia is still known as Kartli) built a church on the spot. The church is an early example of the Georgian ‘tetraconch’ design, being cross shaped with four equal arms, the angles between them filled in with corner rooms.

Perhaps not King Mirion's original cross
Jvari Church near Mtskheta
The interior is relatively bare, but King Mirion's cross, or at least a descendant of it, is still there, and there are some icons. The painting of St Nicholas is hardly Santa Claus with the wrong white beard and no red robe.
 
St Nicholas, Jvari Church near Mtskheti


It is an interesting place to put a church, highly visible yet easily defensible. Georgia has spent most of its existence at the meeting point of empires, but the Ottomans did not yet exist and Russian power was centuries away, so presumably Stepanoz was concerned about more localised strife.

From Jvari there is a magnificent view over the small city of Mtskheta sitting in the confluence of the two rivers. The first three of that daunting clump of consonants are supposed to be sounded separately followed by the 'kh' which resembles the 'ch' in 'loch'. In practice, when said quickly, my ignorant ear heard just 'Sketa'.

 
Mtskheta at the confluence of the Aragvi and Mtkvari Rivers
Mtskheta is dominated by the enormous (by eleventh century standards) bulk of Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, and that was where we went next though by a circuitous route; first we had to find our way to the other side of the duel carriageway and then navigate country roads to cross the Mtkvari - twice.

As the see of the Catholicos-Patriarch, Mtskheta is the Canterbury of Georgia. The streets of the small town were quiet as we walked up to the fortified wall that surrounds the church. The present Svetitskhoveli Cathedral was built in the 11th century but there has been a church on the site since the 4th century.

Quiet streets and the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, Mtskheta

Inside the most important object is the grave of Sidonia containing (in addition to Sid) Christ's seamless robe for which the soldiers played dice at the foot of the cross. According to Hollywood, after Richard Burton had supervised the crucifixion he won the Robe and it led him, via various tribulations and plot twists, to true love, Christianity and martyrdom. Georgian legend differs. The Robe was won by a soldier who, not being Richard Burton, immediately sold it on to a Georgian Jewish merchant named Elias. Elias brought the Robe home to Mtskheta and gave to his sister Sidonia who promptly died in a fit of pious ecstasy. Fortunately not all holiday gifts have this effect.

 
The Robe is down there somewhere (alegedly),Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, Mtskheta

Unable to prise the Robe from her cold, dead hand, they buried it with her and a cedar tree grew over the grave. When St Nino persuaded King Mirion to build the original cathedral the cedar was hewn into seven pillars. Six were used in construction while the seventh refused to co-operate and instead hung in the air the way planks don’t (as Douglas Adams almost observed) After St Nino spent a night in prayer the spar deigned to locate itself over the grave where it gave off a sacred liquid that cured all diseases, hence the name Svetitskhoveli (Life-giving Pillar) Cathedral. It is still there to this day, inside a sort of kiosk.

I find this story less believable than the Hollywood version - and that was based on a novel. Regardless of what I think, people arrive at the kiosk to pray in a steady stream.


Praying beside the tomb of the Robe, Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

The man crossing himself in the photo below is wearing a skirt. A strict dress code is applied in Georgian churches. Women must cover their heads and wear long skirts and men must wear long trousers. Head scarves and wrap around skirts are always available in the porch, and unless the authorities are very fussy it is acceptable for men in shorts to wrap a skirt around themselves. It is unusual for a conservative institution to find cross-dressing more acceptable than knees, but who am I to comment?
Cross-dressing in Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, Mtskheta
The sound of singing was coming from a small side chapel, an unaccompanied choir of such musicality, complexity and power it made the hairs stand up on the backs of our necks. Poking our heads into the chapel we found to our amazement that all this sound was being produced by one priest and two middle aged women. We stood and listened open mouthed until their rehearsal came to an end.


Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, Mtskheta

Beyond the church the town was busier; there were stalls and cafes and a couple of busloads of Israeli tourists for them to work with. We stopped and drank some coffee before continuing northwards.

We drove along what is slightly ominously known as the Georgian Military Highway which follows the route used since antiquity by merchants and invaders travelling or rampaging between Vladikavkaz in Dagestan and Tbilisi. In 1799 Georgia sought help from Russia to free itself from a hundred years of Persian domination. Two years later Georgians duly found themselves free from Persia - but annexed by Russia. Tsar Alexander I instructed General Yermolov to construct a road across the Caucasus. A major feat of engineering, the road was not finished until 1863, but by then the Georgian Military Highway was, by some distance, the best road in Russia.

Nearby, to our west, was South Ossetia which, along with Abkhazia, had with Russian encouragement, declared itself independent of Georgia in 1991, a situation confirmed by the Russia-Georgia War of 2008. Now de facto independent states, South Ossetia and Abkhazia are recognised only by Russia, a couple of Russian cronies, each other and their fellow post-Soviet breakaways, Nagorno Karabakh and Transnistria. (There will be more about this conflict when we reach Gori and Kutaisi in two days’ time.)

The road began to rise into the mountains, following the Aragvi River to the Zemo Avchala hydroelectric dam, then clinging to the lakeside above the dam. 


Zemo Avchala hydroelectric dam
We stopped for lunch in the foothills at a large roadside restaurant obviously popular with tourists – today, as in Mtskheta, dominated by several large groups of Israelis.


Dinara and Lynne have lunch beside the Georgian Military Highway
Khachapuri, tomato salad with walnut & garlic dressing, lobio in its clay pot and khinkali

We found a table on a quiet balcony and, on Dinara's advice, ordered lobio, khinkali and a couple of glasses of very brown Georgian white wine. Lobio is a stew of beans in a clay pot, not unlike ful, which we have eaten in Sudan and Egypt where it is the national breakfast food, but made from haricot rather than broad beans. Khinkali are meat filled dumplings, bigger than Chinese jiaozi and more like Mongolian buuz, but filled with beef rather than pork or mutton. They also contain a quantity of cooking liquid so they must be eaten with care. The approved method is to nip a hole in the side and suck out the liquid, a technique which Lynne is demonstrating in the photo below. Note her elegant and ladylike daintiness.

How to eat khinkali

Ananuri Fortress now sits beside the lake, but when it was built by the Dukes of Aragvi, who ruled here from the 13th to the 18th century, it would have been an imposing sight, perched high on the side of a deep valley. It is now picturesque rather than forbidding, so much so that it appears on the cover of the Lonely Planet ‘Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan’ guidebook. My picture is taken from the same spot, though in summer - theirs was in spring.

Ananuri Fortress

Inside the wall there are not one but two churches – well, this is Georgia - both dating from the 17th century. Between 1811 and 1917 the Georgian Orthodox Church was absorbed into the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian churches typically have an iconostasis separating the nave from the sanctuary and whitewashed walls. The Georgian tradition had been to cover the walls with frescoes which the Russians whitewashed over. The larger church retains its iconostasis…..



Iconostasis, Ananuri Fortress

….but much of the whitewash has been removed to reveal the old frescoes including an impressive 'last judgement.' Dinara’s parents, artists both, have been heavily involved in the work of uncovering and conserving Georgia’s frescoes.


Last Judgement, Ananuri Fortress
Outside there are some wonderful stone-carvings….


Ananuri Fortress

…and climbing the tower of the surrounding battlements gives a good view over both churches.
Churches, Ananuri Fortress

We wound higher and higher into the mountains. The Georgian Military Highway may not look as impressive to us as to the 19th century eye, but it is still a skilfully engineered and well-maintained road.

Gudauri, our destination for the evening, is a ski resort. It consists of a couple of houses, a petrol station with a large, modern self-service shop attached and a number of hotels scattered around the bare green hillside where the road starts the serious climb up the 2379m (7,800 feet) high Jvari Pass.

There is little going on in summer apart from the ceaseless grind of lorries heading up the pass towards Russia, and those making the easier trip downwards.


Gudauri
Lynne, Dinara, Alex and I appeared to be our small hotel’s only guests, but when we assembled for dinner we found a huge buffet laid out. I requested a bottle of red wine, but paused when I was asked for 21 lari, about £7, not a big sum at home, but it seemed excessive in Georgia. What I had forgotten was that very little, and then only the best, Georgian wine gets into bottles. The waitress asked if I wanted 'home made wine', though whose home it was made in she did not specify – and as Gudauri is almost 2000m up a mountain, it was certainly not a local home. The wine, poured into a jug from a plastic bottle, cost 15 Lari for the litre, and was as brown and tannic as any 'white' wine ever made in a qvervi. It may not be subtle, it may not be refined, but it accompanies Georgian food like it was made for the job (which, actually, it was).

Half way through the meal a busload of Russians arrived. It spoilt our peaceful dinner, but at least it justified the size of the buffet.
 
From the Caspian to the Black Sea


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