It was another beautiful day as we left the delights of Batumi to travel to the Sumela monastery, half a day away.
Breakfast was interesting as the hotel had provided a picnic breakfast to eat on the truck. This basically comprised hard boiled eggs (lots), plastic sausages individually wrapped in thin plastic (lots), plastic pots of yoghurt and jam covered in cling film and bread. It was not terribly appetising and it turned up for lunch as well, but then (happily) it was abandoned.
On a personal note, the not very funny humerus (near enough!) is now beginning to turn black from the escapade of the persimmon trees. It will be long gloves up passed the elbow for me for the foreseeable future…….
We pulled away from the hotel and it’s sparkling seaside location and followed the promenade as it continued along the sea shore. As we headed towards Turkey, mountains appeared to our left as the sea glistened to our right. In no time we were at the border, the last before we leave for home and we were bidding fond farewell to Zaza who has been such a lovely and knowledgable guide.
To us border veterans, this was a doddle – it took no time at all – but it was far busier than any of the other borders experienced on the trip. It was also far more efficient. We were soon back on the truck, continuing to skirt the Black Sea. It was interesting that there were fishing boats now in the bay, something we did not see in Georgia. Initially a steep cliff rose to our left and our route took us through several tunnels, but then the cliffs fell back and houses and mosques appeared to our left as we continued to follow the coast road. Now the far less towering apartment buildings were cream and pink and yellow. We had at last left the grey Russian concrete behind and were in the land of the Turks, seemingly untouched by the mighty hand of the soviet republic.
Regrettably the brilliant day clouded over as we passed through the coastal towns. More carved tunnels came and went as we continued along the coast. Now there were fig trees by the roadside and geraniums appeared more frequently.
We found an early lunch stop by the sea where some men came to inspect us and chatted to Keith in German (I didn’t know he spoke German!) prior to responding to the call to prayer echoing over the valley. We saw a number of mosques after lunch, full of men and then we realised, of course it was Friday.
Not much later we passed the runway of a small airport. The towns and villages feel very different. The bread shops are different. There are modern trucks and tractors and showrooms selling both.
Eventually we turned away from the sea and turned up a narrow, steep sided, wooded valley. By now it was raining. We passed the town of Macka and then the wooden chalet type hotel where we are staying overnight, but we continued climbing up, passing two fish farms on the way. We eventually stopped at the car park of the Sumela Monastery which clung to the rock wall at the top of the cliff above us.
Nearly 300 metres high, the Sumela is in the tradition of monasteries built near forests, caves and sources of water. Sumela means black and the monastery is thought to be named either in honour of the Black Madonna once owned by the monastery or after the Black Mountains in which it is situated. It was first built in 375 AD and was restored in the 6th century and enlarged to its current size in the 13th century. It was sustained by imperial funds and its rights were preserved by the Ottoman Sultans and the Turks but it was seized by the Russians in 1916-18 and the monastery was abandoned in 1923. The wonderful, although vandalised, frescoes are thought to date from the 9th to the 19th century, with the majority from the more recent past.
How do these monks decide on these amazing locations? Does Brother Barnabas or the Abbot Petronichus wake up one morning thinking ‘today I will go and create a monastery which will hang on the side and at the top of a cliff’ and then pick up his spade and pick axe, gather up his prayer book and rosary beads and a few friends and set off? What happened to my enterprise of this kind? Did I just miss out? It is a puzzle …..
There were two paths up to the monastery, one was a very steep zig zag for one and a half kilometres and the other was a three kilometre walk up the road. We of course opted for the short and steep route and I panted as I climbed up the steep incline for about half an hour to be rewarded by an amazing view down into the valley and the monastery just above me. After a flight of steep stone steps (oh joy) we arrived at the monastery buildings. Although now only the shells of the rooms remain, their use was quite clear. Niches for books in the library, the large fire place and the bread ovens in the kitchens and fireplaces in the monks cells. By far the best feature of the monastery were the frescoes both inside and outside the main building. Although graffitied and vandalised they are still quite remarkable.
I loved the it because, once again, I cannot but admire the commitment, skill and enthusiasm that goes into creating such a place.
Although it was still raining, Keith and I opted to walk down the steep route, made even more treacherous by the fallen leaves which the rain had stuck to the rocks underfoot. Nevertheless it was good to be out and to take time to reflect on what we had seen.
Once we had all gathered again it was back into the truck to go back to our hotel. This proved to be excellently snug as they had turned the heating on for us. Bliss!
As the hotel was somewhat remote, we ate in and had an excellent repast of dal soup, trout and rice pudding. We then adjourned for a very early night,
Listening to the rain dripping down outside we did spare a thought for the Dragoman group we had met up at the monastery who were camping overnight further up the valley……..