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.
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'.
|Cross-dressing in 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.
Following the Georgian Military Highway into the Caucasus
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.
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|
|Dinara and Lynne have lunch beside the Georgian Military Highway|
Khachapuri, tomato salad with walnut & garlic dressing, lobio in its clay pot and khinkali
|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.
|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|
On to Gudauri
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) Jvari Pass.
Part 3: Baku to Şǝki (or Sheki)
Part 4: Sheki (or Şǝki)
Part 5: Into Georgia: Wine Tasting in Kakheti
Part 6: Telavi to Tbilisi via Sighnaghi
Interlude: Tasting Georgian Wine
Part 7: Tbilisi
Part 8: Up the Georgian Military Highway
Part 9: Stepantsminda (Kazbegi) and Tsminda Sameba
Part 10: Uplistsikhe and Gori, Cave Dwellings and Stalin
Part 11: Kutaisi, Zugdidi and the Inguri Valley
Part 15 Batumi, Capital of Ajara