When I decided to go to Georgia, I started reading about it on the internet to figure out what to do once I got there. There are a lot of glowing comments, especially about the physical beauty of the countryside. It is in the Caucasus, a region filled with mountains, rivers and seas. It is also an ancient land where early Homo sapiens made the journey from Africa through Asia to populate Europe and has some of the most complex ethnography on earth.
So it should be no surprise that there is stunning scenery as well as ancient and elaborate cultural sites. It’s also the birthplace of Stalin and has a long and complicated history with Russia. Some of that is Russian tourists! They made up the majority of the tourists on my day tours and the tour was richer if you could understand Russian. Luckily for me there was a Dutch guy on my first day tour who told our charming tour guide that the information in Russian was much longer so he needed to tell us more.
The tour guide did a great job as he would take the Russian group through the entire experience while the three English speakers wandered around and then he would take us on more or less the same tour.
Our first stop was the Jvari monastery. According to local history, a wooden cross was erected over a pagan sanctuary on a rocky mountaintop overlooking Mtskehta, the original capital of Georgia, in the early fourth century. The cross symbolized the rise of Christianity in Georgia. In 545, the Small Church of Jvari was built north of the cross. A larger Georgian Orthodox Church was constructed between 586 and 605 directly above the site of the wooden cross. In 2004 the monastery was declared a World Heritage Site. The view from the top of the hill is breathtaking.
From Jvari, we headed into Mtskehta. It is definitely a place where I could have spent more time but we just had time for the main attraction – Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. It is the main Christian Orthodox Cathedral in Georgia built between 1010 and 1029. It was the main pilgrimage place on the Silk Road. It is also the burial place for Georgian kings. Legend says that part of Christ’s tunic fell into the hands of local Jewish man Eliazar. He brought it to Mtskehta and his sister Sidonia claimed it and gave her soul to God and she was buried holding the tunic. A miraculous tree grew from her grave and was used to build the cathedral.
From here we went to another fascinating part of Georgian history. For people (like me) who want to see Cappadocia but haven’t got there yet, Uplistsikhe will make you smile. From the 6th to 11th century it was an important political and cultural centre – a city and civilization carved out of rock. It was eventually destroyed by the Mongols and you will just be able to make guesses about what life was like back then but it is obvious it was a sophisticated place for the time in an extraordinary location. Back when technology was more primitive, physical location really mattered, why you often have to climb to the top of a hill in ancient sites. Not only does it provide great views, it was a strategic advantage over enemies.
The final stop on our day tour was Gori. Being very much a non-fan of Stalin, I chose the option of visiting the ruins of the ancient fortress of Goristsihe rather than the House Museum of Stalin. It
proved to be a great choice. Again, more walking and spectacular settings. The fortress is probably the most impenetrable place I have ever been. There were several layers that needed to be breached and it was apparently built by the Ottomans. According to our charming guide, it was overtaken by the Georgians because there were rumours they were cultivating marijuana and the Georgian king wanted it.
Definitely a fascinating journey through history amid some spectacular geography.