As I mentioned in my post about Tbilisi, we were more than happy with our stay at Envoy Hostel and were especially pleased with our decision to take advantage of a few of the day trips they offered. (After just a few minutes on the road, we were even happier that we weren’t the ones behind the wheel.)
Our first trip was to Davit Gareja Monastery, which is located in the Kakheti region of Georgia. The monastery includes dozens of little caves dug into the side of the mountain where monks still live, as well as churches and chapels. We took a pleasant hike around to the back side of the mountain, where we saw even more living spaces (now abandoned) dug into the mountain and enjoyed a view of the plains of Azerbaijan. Of course, once we reached the top, we rewarded ourselves with a slice of khachupuri. Mmmmm.
One of the most enjoyable parts of each of the tours arranged by Envoy was the delicious lunch prepared by a local family. Our first meal in the Khaketi region consisted of baked beans (very similar to Macedonian Baked Beans), khachapuri, shredded cabbage salad, and baked chicken. The food in Georgia is famous throughout the former Soviet Union, but is become more popular outside of the CIS. In fact, you can now buy khachapuri in DC!
Our hosts were beyond hospitable. I could have easily moved in and stayed forever. The Caucasian hospitality is renowned (to be fair, it’s mostly famous among the people of the Caucasus) and warmed our little Balkan hearts right up. The Georgians are famous for their traditions relating to communal eating and celebrations. The concept of the Tamada originated here, and it was not hard to imagine the boisterous local men leading us in a long, verbose, and slightly cloying toast. My readers who are familiar with the Russians’ love for these kinds of toasts will be interested to learn that Georgia is the place where their love for dinner speeches originated.
Our next excursion was to the city of Gori, best known as the birthplace of Stalin. Our entire experience in the city was a bit bizarre. In case you have forgotten, Stalin ranks high among history’s most brutal dictators, and was responsible for killing at least 3 million of his own citizens. So, on the one hand he is loathed. On the other hand, some among the older generation think he was a great statesman with “small mistakes” and are proud of the fact that he “put Georgia on the map.” (There is a great little introduction to Georgia’s complicated relationship with Stalin on the BBC if you are interested in reading a bit more.) Despite his generally abhorrent behavior, we still enjoyed our visit to Gori. The city still holds some reminders that the Georgian-Russian war of 2008 happened very near: Gori hosts the UN peacekeeping forces in Georgia.
After Gori, we stopped in Uplistsikhe, an archeological site containing various structures which date from the Early Iron Age to the Late Middle Ages. Uplistsikhe is a city hewn into rock, similar to other cities built at the same time in Anatolia and Iran. It towers over the meandering Mktvari River and sits on top of the Silk Road, antiquity’s major trade route between Europe and the Far East. The Caucasus naturally sits in the middle of this route, and Uplistsikhe was a Silk Road regional center until Christianity arrived in Georgia in the 4th century.
Our last excursion was a trip down the Georgian Military Highway to Kazbegi (nowadays also known as Stepantsminda). Kazbegi is best known as a remote town in a pass in the tallest mountains in Europe, the mighty and terrifying Caucasus Mountains. Kazbegi is near Mt. Kazbek, which stands at a lofty 5,034 m (16,516 ft). Our driver showed up with a brand new-to-him van, which unfortunately couldn’t quite make it over the steep (so. very. steep.) mountain pass. Not to worry, we stopped. He smoked. We threw a little snow on the radiator to cool things down, and went on our way.
The views leading up to the pass were incredible. We visited in March and the mountains were still covered in snow, and old stone churches stood along the road every couple of miles. We held our breath as we traversed through crumbling old Soviet tunnels, and the road was literally more pothole than asphalt. We successfully drove over Jvari Pass, at a head-spinning 2379 meters (7815 feet), and started our descent into Kazbegi’s valley.
When we finally got to Kazbegi, we stopped for lunch at the home of a local bed and breakfast proprietor. What a feast she prepared! (Those are just the appetizers on the table below.) Roasted strips of eggplant stuffed with walnuts and topped with pomegranates (very similar to the recipe I posted for Armenian Eggplant Rolls), fresh yogurt, tomato and cucumber salad, soft cheese, meat balls, and Russian salad.
Khinkhali are Georgian dumplings, usually filled with meat or pumpkin.
After eating more than we probably should have, we set out to hike up to a breathtaking church right by the peak of Mt. Kazbek. The Gergeti Trinity Church, the main cultural landmark of the area. We headed out throughout the village, past a few noble cows and straggly dogs, until we finally ditched the road and hiked right up the side of the mountain. The Gergeti Trinity Church is only accessible by a long hike up the side of the mountain.
Upon arrival we were pleasantly surprised to walk into a warm stone church. It was being held down by a single Orthodox monk shivering by a space heater. He studied us intently and shouted at us as we moved towards a part of the church we weren’t supposed to be in. The weather was very snowy, so we couldn’t see the normal view of Kazbek that people travel here to see, but regardless, we took in plenty of beautiful mountain vistas that day.