The great thing about exploring a city while staying at a hotel that serves breakfast hours after you’re ready to go is that you can come back and eat after some early morning exploring… even after waking up early and going back to sleep. Sunset comes with people scurrying around but as the sun begins to blink its eyes open and share that light with this portion of the planet the pace is slower and calm as I stop to take in the artificial yellow glow along the streets.
I park a few minutes’ walk from the Trinity Cathedral even though there is parking outside the gate and I’m just able to catch the facade lit up before it went dark 48 seconds later. Religions went the opposite route in modesty when it came to building God’s house and I wouldn’t mind living in a tiny non-denominational version with all the best features — candlelight, stained-glass windows, and futon pews (from levee to leisure), but it’s the peasant’s job to live in a humble home while appreciating the creations of others without coveting their location.
The inside is marvelous and I take a photo-shooting spree before a hooded cleric kindly acknowledges that of course this religious structure has the same no-photo policy, as do all buildings without security that are full of gold, precious gems, and beautifully carved and probably rare wood types. I appreciate the few others milling about but wonder about the acoustics of the high ceilings with a melodious congregation during a worship service that I would feel lucky to witness.
I notice a woman wrapping her legs in one of the scarves provided (that I thought was just for hair) but the no-pants symbol on the sign of what not to do in church makes more sense now. I’m not the only woman who doesn’t cover my leg gap but I do wear my hood where others reveal their mane. I understand why there would be tourist churches and ones for locals-only or timings to accommodate both in any country and religion so that the parishioners may pray without distraction.
A man sees my camera and me pointing it at everything in sight as the sunlight is constantly changing the shadows of the church and its surroundings. He ushers me to a gate and lets me in saying, ”go, go” as he gestures towards the peacocks on a rooftop behind two trees. I take advantage of being on this side of the fence and get a closer look at the swans as well before thanking him as he talks to a friend before I’m offered another vantage point of the Trinity Cathedral.
The sun has cleared the horizon and I attempt to find an outdoor museum via the roundabout that is Heroes Square and consists of up and down road options in six directions. I’m not good with numbers but I know I could’ve been there for hours and I hadn’t eaten yet, so I choose to save it for another time in the future. I park near the shops in a designated spot instead of navigating the street parking and walk to Guest House Zemeli for a fresh-made breakfast while I sip tea.
I’m not sure if they were elder or juneberries but the crunch of their seeds went well with the soft bread covered in tabs of butter. The main dish was an egg served with a thin slice of ham, like prosciutto, a grain that looked like bulger wheat, and a soft, crumbly cheese brick that filled a quarter of the plate. To help digest all the food I would take an over two-kilometer walk roundtrip to the Rustaveli Theatre that I thought was a museum… either way they would both be closed at this hour.
I would detour on the way back and return to First Republic Square (or Rose Revolution Square) where the Christmas market was now void of everyone but the few guards patrolling and me getting a chance to look at the 12-foot hollowed-out heart with gold shiny bits, to attract a line of selfie-takers, without the queue. I love people but I also love the absence of them. I’m grateful the planet still affords me the opportunity to appreciate both, in the countryside and in a city with a population of over 1.1 million residents.
I parked by the curb of a garage located on the other side of the walkway from the street and watched a car pull up for basic services — tires, fluids, etc. I arrived at an old-looking school building around the corner but this one with hammer and sickle on the doors –meaning Stalin’s house should be nearby. Nevermind that I was 20 minutes early, the arrow said open to the left, so I proceeded to give myself a tour of the well shed, with a hole big enough for two men to hug each other, then down the brittle metal circular staircase to a dark room (lit with my phone) to show a typographic machine with a rusted hurricane lantern shell dangling above.
I made it back up the stairs without needing a tetanus shot from my ankle being enveloped in a rusty bacteria-covered step and into a pink wallpapered room with portraits, books, a smaller typographic machine, and a bed that looked more like a storage trunk. I was about to see myself out when a guy came and turned on the lights and then went back inside to grab something — a summary of the museum in English, even though he would proceed to give me the tour in Russian and with hand gestures.
I was told that the skinny (and wet) well is where the parts for the large typographic machine were put down so that they could be reassembled in the hidden basement once they were brought across a tunnel and up a dry well. With the lights on I’m able to make out 1893 on the machine and see the sturdy ladder that survived the explosion of the house and well in 1906 when the police found out and then filled the well with soil. The buildings were restored between 1922 and 1957 when the museum first opened.
The brochures and other anti-king literature were printed in Georgian, Armenian, and Russian though most of the tourists that visit are from China who come to pay their respects to another communist. As my guide shows me how the plate would be placed and then the wheel rotated to bring the paper up to wet ink I think about the effects too much efficiency has had on civilization and their expectations for immediate gratification. I would love to be typing this on an electric typewriter and getting to hear the bing as I returned to the left margin, but that’s because I have the luxury of time.
The tour continues in the green wallpapered room with more portraits, stacks of books, and a roped-off bed. I’m impressed with a three-in-one image (that the pictures will better describe) and wonder about the model of the illegal printery in Baku, Azerbaijan that now has the Flame Towers (representing the coat of arms) since 2013 overlooking the largest city on the Caspian Sea. Though I’m really more concerned about the actual building and getting to see another part of this story told from another perspective.
To think I almost left without experiencing the second bedroom and not realizing there’s also a museum inside the school-looking building. My guide points to a group of faces and motions as to what their job was — assemble, print, distribute — and then gestured for me to take pictures of it all. We go into another room with a map that lights up tracing the spread of the movement before I’m shown to a special office where I’m guessing Stalin sat for phone calls and lunch. I’m then asked to pay the 5 lari museum entrance fee and shown the door with a smile.
I pull up to the fuel pump, most of them allowing you street access without a barrier, and this one is conveniently at an intersection corner. I was told in the rental lot to put diesel in the tank but was unaware I’d have two options to choose from. I can’t see the price on the sign and I’m not concerned about the cost difference but ensuring the guy who will be pumping for me grabs the proper handle. Once that’s established, I have to signal to him to give me a full tank costing 98 lari, about $35, as I’m not sure what to expect on the road ahead on my way to Tbilisi National Park.
It took me half an hour to get outside the city limits leaving me with roadside ruins, leafless trees, and a few dogs to see for the next 20 minutes before I got to the no cars/no killing sign of the park with another sign letting me know that there’s video control. The road getting here wasn’t bad (as I had heard), a bit bumpy but clearly marked and scenic. As I continued, my path became more beautiful, foggy, eerie, frosty, and forbidding.
I love driving on curvy, cliffside roads but that’s because I’m used to the integrity of the pavement, whether it’s covered in rain, snow, or ripples (corrugated) and I’m usually not alone when the road turns into remnants with a long fall on one side and a ditch on the other or leaving the car bottomed out on the thin line of a lane that I’m maneuvering hoping that any moment I will have arrived at the Big Viewpoint Trail that I had planned on walking or cycling if bikes are available to rent.
After the condition of the road like that, I’m hesitant to go any further and turn around as soon as it’s semi-safe to do so. There’s another road and I will take it down to what appears to be a large family of farmhouses and stop at the cemetery that looks like people were buried within the foundations of their old homes and then a park was built with fences on the concrete surrounding the headstones within. Some have picnic tables inside and there are others around but they don’t look like they’ve been sat on in years.
There’s a sign for the Mamkoda Loop for bicycles in 29km but I’m not sure if that was the road I was on or if it would be fit for my biking skill level if I were able to reach it. Back at the road where each habitat comes with its version of animal crossing to watch out for — cows in Texas, bears in Canada, camels in Oman, and dogs in Georgia. I get out of the car and make acquaintances with the skittish mutt before sharing some food, not by us taking turns licking or nibbling, but tossing it on the rocks and giving the pup space.
I notice some ruins to my left and as I pull over to take a picture I’m greeted with the welcome sign of the national park which lets me know that it was established to maintain its treacherous forest appearance, complete with lynx that probably hunt the red deer, and all the bike trails are off-road so I’m fine stopping at whatever is in front of me now but there are no pedaling plans at this point.
Below, across a dry river bed crossing, is an old fort and a road that goes two ways — one leads to a two-story structure and a car the size of a Honda Civic with a dozen men standing around it (clown car scenario or maybe their Uber is late) and the other direction that leads to mysterious trees and ruins up in the mountains. The men are in camouflage and coats and there’s a campfire ring with no smoke. Perhaps they’re inspecting the car as it might’ve been abandoned. Two of the men decide to wander over and check on me before heading back to the group.
I’m fine with seeing a bit of the rocks, sticks, moss, chipped paint, and dried fruit that the buildings have to offer as I climb their varied stairs to look through doors and windows at different angles before leaving the possibility of becoming an extra in the Russian film in-the-making where I end up bleeding for one reason or another. I used to be into more gory movie scenes until I realized they could be based on real-life situations and then that punishment lost its humor — like the blurred line between childhood and becoming an adult.
Anyway, back on the road and driving west I stop at the Eastern Orthodox Church where there seems to be a photoshoot going on. I bypass the family but am quickly and kindly redirected to take my camera to the tourist site just minutes down the road. The arch where the group was focusing their pictures is ok but this is a more private religious venue and I can respect that. The Jvari Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site, in Mtskheta is beautiful and was on my list of places to see.
I wasn’t expecting the wind and was a bit hungry when I stepped out of the car but the food stalls are empty so I’ll have to wait. This church was built in the 6th century around the octagonal base of a large wooden cross that was erected in the 300s, hence its other name Church of Holly Cross, and was built in the tetraconch style to contain four apses, semicircular domes, with one in each direction but maintaining a squarish exterior. There were other structures built as well but the Caucasus mountains and the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers grew without human influence until the 1920s.
As I prepare myself for the view of Mtskheta below I lift my thin waterproof hood over my ears and try to tuck my head into its protective shell. The wind still bites, it will every time, but regardless of who I’m with or how I’m dressed, I can’t seem to let a little bit of weather get between me and a new experience or sharing the unfamiliar through someone else’s view. I prefer the desert heat or the mountainous snow or the warm comfort of rain (when I’m not trying to take photos) but as much as I tell myself I don’t like the wind, I sure do find us hanging out whenever we get the chance.
I’m able to squeeze in a few quick pics between the couples taking proof with their phones that they were here and that they too endured the journey that brought them to this mountaintop on a Thursday afternoon. Inside, fighting against the dark is sun, fire, and electricity. Though the arched ceiling might be sixty feet away what’s in arm’s reach feels simple, shiny, and small but all so very splendid to the soul. I’m falling in love with the story of this place (more the bringing people together today, not the faults of history from years gone by) when a piece of plastic blows by in the sky.
This shows me that no place is perfect but when looked at, and cared for, through love I put on my rosy sunglasses that come with plenty of blind spots and I’m able to appreciate the roughness of a place or its people just a bit more so that they fit into my fairy tale childhood stories of how magical a place should be, but the cruel truth is that usually the dirtier and poorer the country, the sweeter the people, the tastier the food, and the more I feel at home, but that’s probably just my bias coming from a small town in Texas that’s not on the list of places named Podunk.
I leave one parking lot to use another and get a more distant view of the Jvari Monastery on my way to the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral Temple, the second-largest church building in Georgia after the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi, which is also the third-tallest Eastern Orthodox cathedral in the world. With limited parking and such a crowd drawer down the street, it makes sense that the local merchants would set up shop on the cobbled path selling candy, clothes, coffee, and curios.
I stepped into Check-in Garden and asked the guy at the bar if they had khachapuri adjaruli, but did this by pointing to a picture that resembles the fishers (bread boat) under the sun (egg) and living on the sea (cheese) that in this case fills the baked treat perfectly but is more than I was prepared to eat. I’m guided downstairs where I’m given a glass of Alazani Valley red to sip while I look through the menu (which I always do, even after I know what I want) and explore the different seating areas available.
With a satiated stomach and a pocket full of bread, I made my way past the scaffolding on the wall surrounding the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral and take a lap around the outside to appreciate the stone barrier contrasting against the mountains and the clouds with evergreens and wooden benches spaced unevenly on the inside of the wall. Even the aged exterior entrance is drenched in details from the engraved wood and stone to the mural above the door.
The inside looks touched but clean, ancient but preserved, and has dark corners with plenty of natural light coming in to brighten the golden haloes on the walls and all the marbled grave markers on the floor. Young and old are awestruck at the design, deterioration, and dedication in preserving and continuing to use a part of history that struggled to keep peace in this setting while bloody battles were being fought to determine which religion, language, skin color, political belief, etc. would be in charge of the region for the next ruling period — from days to decades.
There was a nice outhouse building, like one you’d find at a national park, but the door was locked. I was in luck as there was another WC sign, this one pointing under the roadway, like what a troll — ones living under bridges according to Three Billy Goats Gruff not the popular toy of the 90s created by Thomas Dam in 1959 or the popular internet ones that started in the 80s or the film that was released in 1986 — would use if they needed a free squat toilet.
Up ahead is Saint Nino’s Makvlovani — which refers to the garden of spirituality under a blackberry bush with the blessing of the Mother of God — has stones in it that are curved on one side to go around a pipe and flat on the other. Makvlovani also refers to a smaller church (where a beheading and parties are painted within) that happens to be in front of the Samtavro Convent where I wasn’t allowed to take pictures. I admired all the jewels and gold in their protective kissing cases and especially the one that had clothes appearing on a body in a glass casket.
I know having a camera can seem like a distraction but I feel like it offers me two points of view. I snap an image of what I see in the moment and I’m given a second chance to see what else was captured while I was narrowly focused on a certain aspect of the scene. Trying to take pictures that help tell a story to encourage me to see more of the details that would otherwise go unnoticed or be forgotten in the minutiae of the experience as time goes on and the elements that were once bold blend together to create a blur of a memory that was once vivid.
I would love to see that convent again and I suppose my option is to revisit the country for more perspective and research what I can and appreciate that some things or events are better left to be built in the memory and not ruined by flash cameras or grainy film. I unknowingly take the shorter route back but also wanted a different view. I’m glad I did as this brought me past a dog to share my leftover lunch bread with before watching two others play tug-o-war with an old towel.
I pay for my parking spot as I debate whether to sleep here for the night or continue on as I had planned in my not-so-rigid itinerary. It’s about 70 minutes to Gori where there will be another guest house. I’m racing the sunset as I hit 90 km/h but the road is like walking here. You need to be constantly vigilant or a bump or giant pothole could change your day. I also had to pull over once or ten times to capture the clouds on the right side of the road as it’s not easy, or safe, to put the camera out the passenger window while I’m stretched across the car.
Just as I’m leaving Grakali I see a roadblock twenty butts wide to include both shoulders. The two sheepherders were able to get their flock of some 200 sheep to give me enough room to pass. The sun is gone from the sky as I begin my nighttime search for a bed. My first stop is Guesthouse Svetlana. I feel like I’m trespassing as I walk up to the kitchen door and knock, loudly and twice, at the woman watching TV with her feet up just two meters from me. Another door opens and I’m invited in as a man is leaving.
The hostess went into the room downstairs to “count the beds” and was told that they are full by the girls already in them. I didn’t want to sleep in a brothel but I didn’t want to be rude if there did happen to be a private room upstairs so I continued to wait while she scream-talked at someone for minutes before telling me to enjoy my journey… elsewhere. I went to Tamar Guest House on the next street over but the gate was locked so I couldn’t even approach the door. At least that way I know their beds are full and don’t have to waste time sitting awkwardly alone at a dining table.
I started to look for hotels instead as I wasn’t in the mood to drive door to door as it got later and I got concerned some places might have a curfew aka their bedtime. I got walked to room 18 at Royal House and agreed – one person for one night only 70 lari cash, about $25, unless I want to add breakfast. I’m given caramel candy which means coconut in Russian along with green jasmine tea that I chose and two scoops of coffee with milk that I was offered by the hotel clerk along with two chocolate-covered cookies with jam in the middle and three plain.
I tried one of each cookie, drank most of both cups, and have an idea that will be my morning snack before backtracking to Uplistsikhe Cave Town. I thought I locked the door to my room, with the mini-fridge that takes up half the desk space, but when I came out of the toilet it was open. I relocked it and noticed the Dutch door/speakeasy peephole combo on the top quarter panel for when it’s not negative degrees out or maybe delivery while you’re in pajamas.
The room next to me shares one of my heaters, the other is behind the bed, and though I can hear the men discussing plans for the night, the metal bracket blocks the view. Outside my bathroom window are towels hanging to dry under a cover with a ladder leaning against the wall. It’s warm enough in here to be in my undies, instead of the woolly and thermals I’ve been wearing, though the door is cold to the touch. I look forward to climbing under my greyscale floral blanket as the twinkly lights above the pool shine in through my sheer curtains.