After an interesting breakfast involving salty cheese, rich home made yoghurt, a fried egg, salad and a pasta based rice type pudding at Nana’s we were off for what proved to be one of the busiest days of the trip.
It was the first day that the truck was really cold to get into. A definite wintry feel. As we left the town the outline of the Caucusus mountains could just be seen in the distance under the cloud which hovered below us over the valley below. First stop? The Convent we visited yesterday when looking for the monastery. It is the monastery. Considering that it is surrounded by Moslem countries, christianity goes back a long way in Georgia. Disciples are said to have visited including Simon and Matthew and by the 4th century christianity was the state religion. It’s had a number of setbacks (to say the least!) and for some time martyrdom seems to have been the name of the game, but Niño the Nun arrived and subsequently died at the Convent thus making it a revered spot for Georgian Catholics. Unfortunately, it being Sunday there was a mass on so we could not get in – I said I was happy to pass around my photos taken the day before……
We set off again. En route the slender pipes that are evident everywhere became a source of interest. The Georgians are quite creative with them. The pipes are usually painted red or yellow and travel along – say – 8 ft above ground level, they go up and over gateways, like picture frames. They apparently carry the natural gas which is piped into every home and it is certainly a novel way of making it available! The poverty of the country continues to be evident as we travel along. Towns have crumbling buildings, fences are falling down or have disappeared completely, graveyards were overgrown, their rusting railings enclosing dead stinging nettles.
The early morning had given way to cloud and then rain, but the sun emerged again as we stopped to visit Gremi an ancient township where excavations have revealed evidence of people living there in the 7th century BC. Gremi was a political and cultural centre and an important trading spot on the Silk Road. It had its heyday in the 16th century when it flourished for about 150 years prior to being demolished by the Persians. We received all this information in a nice museum at the site, delivered by a very helpful man whose English was heavily accented and was inclined to mumble under his beard (a failing of ZsaZsa’s too – it must be a Georgian thing!) so I cannot vouch for the total veracity of my facts here.
Back to the story. There is evidence of the area being divided into three sections – the market area, the church and tower palace sitting above things on a steep hill and the defense buildings. The market area had a large Caravanserai and evidence has been found of merchants trading gold, furs, precious stones as well as wine, horses and sheep. The area had its own churches and bathhouse. Up on the hill is the small Church of the Archangels built in 1565, still with many of its frescoes in place. It was busy with little girls in their sunday best dresses and patent shoes with gaily coloured headscarves and their Mums in their long brightly coloured clothes. The men wore dark suits. Candles flickered in the draught as the door of the church constantly opened and closed as people came and went.
Just a step away was the palace tower. The first floor had tall paintings in a slightly elongated figure style depicting the royal family of the time when Gremi was attacked by the Persians and relics of their life and times. They all looked slightly odd with small heads and long bodies.
We left Gremi in the rain again and went off to have a wine tasting and fascinating demonstration of the Georgian wine making technique of burying the grapes in vast terracotta vats dug into the ground. These they seal with a sort of natural wax, place a large stone on the top and cover the whole thing with earth. The wine is definitely different to that that we are used to, but is very drinkable. They also had a still making their own vodka. After seeing the various processes we sat down to a veritable Georgian feast for lunch accompanied by the family’s wines and firewater. It was a very jolly meal with lots of toasts to country, family and absent friends.
The local wine museum, housed in an old stately home, was just along the road, so we opted to walk to (sober up?!) prepare ourselves for yet another imbibing opportunity.
The house had been the home of Prince Alexander Chavchavadze a poet and anti tsarist who was a godson of Catherine the Great. Half of the building had been destroyed by Lezgin tribesman who had taken members of his family hostage. Paying off the ransom to get them back had effectively destroyed the family fortunes. The house that remains is a sophisticated aristocratic home with three grand pianos (one a Steinway) and Limoges chinaware laid out on the dining table. Family portraits adorned the walls. The beds were Victorian cast iron like ours at home. The most amazing thing was the fact that there are still 16,000 bottles of wine
from 1841 in the Prince’s wine cellar. We tasted wine from what is now called the Tsinandali Estate using western wine making techniques and it was delicious, so much so that we bought several bottles for my birthday celebration later in the month. We wondered back to the truck through the English garden (designed by a Frenchman we learnt to our disgust!) very happy with ourselves.
However, the day was not yet over. There was yet one more monastery. The Alaverdi Monastery. ZsaZsa our guide had actually worked on the archeological dig that has now been abandoned on the site. It is still a working monastery with bearded monks in long black robes, where wine and honey is made. They have been making wine here since the 8th century. The huge church towers above the landscape, the highest church of its kind when it was built. The dark of the cavernous interior was broken only by the flames of the candles placed there by the faithful. Above the door was a fresco of George and the Dragon – a seemingly universal Christian motif.
Because of ZsaZsa’s connections we were allowed to go behind the scenes to the apiary and meet the monk in charge of honey making. Honey is produced on an almost industrial scale with smart stainless steel equipment for processing wax and honey. We tasted the final produce, including yet another spirit of throat clenching proportions.
You will not be surprised to learn that it was by now after 6.00 pm and the sun was sinking behind the huge snow tipped mountains in front of us rearing up purple in the fading light.
We set off to our home stay in Telavi tired but having had a truly terrific day.