UPLISTSIKHE / უფლისციხე
We swapped out our car. My loyal readers will not be surprised at this.
The one picked up from the sweet young man at the airport was a little old and cranky. Knowing that we had several long driving trips planned, and Mike discovering that there was an Avis satellite office at the end of our street with newer vehicles, he was able to trade in ol’ Blue for a brand new one that didn’t have a lingering smell of smoke and rattled your bones on the cobbled streets.
Overcast and chilly as forecast we headed out the long way to the caves at Uplistsikhe. Our son has quite a few local friends, when one of them heard that we planned this as a side trip he was impressed. Most tourist gravitate toward the caves of Prometheus, but we, living in the Shenandoah region on the US East Coast, have seen our share of limestone caverns. They look amazing though so don’t let our itinerary affect yours!
His friend suggested that instead of taking the easy route on Highway E-60, we take a more scenic route that would take us through local villages and wide vistas. In full agreement we set off toward the Zahesi-Mtskheta-Katviskhevi-Gori road.
SIDE NOTE: Here’s where the games begin. If you are not a confident driver you may want to hire one of the innumerable local tour guides for this trip. As you are speeding recklessly down the road, locals will pass you as if you were standing still. Including trucks, buses and motorcycles. And when I mean pass, I mean they will pass you regardless if there are oncoming vehicles, blind turns or sight blocking hills. This creates the infamous Georgian third lane. If you are passed and there is oncoming traffic, move over as much to the right as you can, the oncoming driver will do the same, the passer will navigate between you both and no one will get killed.
Sitting obliviously in the back of the car I was shielded from what I was certain to be our imminent death, but we managed to arrive unscathed and son’s friend had been correct, the long road was the one worth traveling because the views were not to be missed.
Arriving at the caves we immediately used the facilities. Hey, it was a long ride! There are nice clean bathrooms there but you will need to pay the attendant to use them.
TIP: I would recommend that you keep a handful of change on you at all times for just this purpose while in Georgia. There are often attendants that keep the bathrooms clean and it is customary (In a lot of places in Europe) to leave a small gratuity.
There is a small clean and modern cafe just inside the entrance, as well as vendors selling food and souvenirs in the ample parking area. After purchasing an entrance ticket, admission 10L, guide in English 10L; hours: 9am-6pm. There is a short walk to a large set of steps, this is not a handicap accessible site, and I would warn you strongly to take hold of small children at all times here. There are many places that are steep drops with little to no safety rails. Also, once you make your way to the top you will be walking over uneven surfaces, sturdy shoes are recommended.
Uplistsikhe is considered to be one of the oldest settlements in the nation, the name means, “Lord’s Fortress”. There is an active Basilica on site that was constructed in the 9th-10th centuries. The caves themselves are reminiscent of the Native American caves in the American west. I highly recommend this blog site for a comprehensive history of the Uplistsikhe: Eurasia Travel
This might be one of those times that you do your research ahead of time. We were not at all sure what we were looking at most of the time. While there were English interpretations on the signs, there was not much in the way of explanation as to what everything’s purpose was.
Research tells me that this city once had a population of twenty thousand people during the reign of the Kartli kings in the early 1000’s. These caves and structures were royal abodes, meeting halls, a prison, a bakery, and various other structures necessary to a city of that size and importance.
The site was also used to worship the sun goddess prior to the arrival of Christianity, and many ancient artifacts have been unearthed to support this history.
When the Arabs conquered and controlled the capital of Tbilisi, Uplistsikhe is where the Christian populace retreated to, ushering in a second life for the once abandoned city.
We explored the caves for a bit longer, then had a small snack at the clean and new cafe at the park entrance, then decided to head to our next stop for the day, the city of Gori.
GORI / გორი
Making a stop in Gori was always on our itinerary for Tuesday, however our son received a message while we were out that there was an urgent matter that needed attending to with his job, so we would need to return to Tbilisi sooner than planned.
Our stop in Gori became like the run for the roses. We shot out of our car and jogged over to the main square where we snapped a few photos in front of the childhood home of Joseph Stalin. Understanding that Stalin’s place in history is dark we approached the area with the solemness that it warranted. There is a museum here but we did not have time to visit it. Gori is a fair size city and you could spend a day here easily.
SIDE NOTE: In most of the cities in Georgia we experienced the “Modi Men.” These men are unofficial parking attendants that derived their nickname from the word for “Move.” They are often older gentlemen, usually with a cigarette hanging from their mouth, and wearing a bright reflective vest. They will help you find a space, or help you park, or show up at your window with a sweet smile and a nod that it is ok that you found your own space, but please tip us anyway. Please do. It has been told to us that this job was once a paid position with the city during the Soviet era and most of the Modi Men simply continued to do the job even though they are no longer officially paid. It is worth a few coins for a kind greeting in a foreign city.
Stalin was born, Iosif Vissarionovich Jughashvili, in 1878 when Georgia was part of Russia. He adopted the moniker “Stalin” because it means, “Man of steel.” His father was a shoemaker and his mother took in laundry. His early life was hard and lonely. As an only child he often bore the brunt of his angry alcoholic father. He earned a seminary scholarship for priesthood at an Georgian Orthodox church in Tbilisi, where he first became fascinated by the Georgian revolution movement against Russia. From there his history becomes cruelly infamous.
After a whirlwind look at the outdoor attractions dedicated to the nefarious Joseph Stalin, we flew back to the car and zipped over to Goris Tsikhe, the Gori Fortress, for a photo.
I had really been looking forward to exploring this fortress that spilled down the hill, but son needed to get home so all I can offer you is a photo. Apparently, there is not much to see inside, but it is free to enter and I have read that there is a great view of the city from the top.
There were mentions of this structure as far back as the 13th century. It was positioned at a crucial trading crossroads and due to its position, situated high on a hill, it was also a strategic military base for the different factions that conquered it through the centuries. Turks, Ottomans, Georginas, and Persians to name a few. It has been renovated for use a few times throughout its long history, however an earthquake in 1920 dealt it a final blow and now it is no longer used except by tourists.
We piled back into the car, waving a final goodbye to the curious Modi-men and made the long trek back to Tbilisi.
Later, husband, daughter and I descended into Vino Underground for drinks and appetizers while we waited for our son to finish up work for the evening.
It was a pleasant, compact little wine bar right on our street, with an impressive wine list and appetizers made from fresh ingredients. Alas, the Orange wine was not here either.
Dinner was at a local restaurant called Piano, which had great Italian fare (I see a pattern here) where we witnessed some pretty interesting scenes. The gentleman sitting at the table adjacent to us was some sort of local Godfather. Periodically a person would walk through the front door, sit awkwardly for a moment with the man, converse and then leave. This happened several times during the course of our meal and I was hopelessly intrigued.
Across the way from our table, was, what my husband informed us later, a professional hockey player and his family. At the end of their meal (A celebration of sorts) he presented the ladies in his party with the most enormous bunches of flowers I have ever seen, he was handsome, kind, and seemed humbled as many people greeted him as he left. Lastly, there was a boisterous group of professional men who toasted each other the entire night (More about the Famous Georgian toasts a bit later.) They kept us entertained throughout our delicious meal.
Our son likes to frequent the Kantora Bar while in Tbilisi. He has a wonderful and diverse group of friends there that he wanted us to meet, and one of the girls just happened to be having a birthday party. Our daughter gracefully bowed out because she was pretty tired, but Mike and I were up for a nightcap.
The bar, located at 3 Ivane Machabeli St, is new, with very creative murals, great mixed drinks and a friendly atmosphere. The owners have a love of motorcycles and cool American icons of screen and road. There was a small dog of unknown breed visiting this night who absolutely captivated my husband.
Walking around the back streets of Tbilisi at night was comfortable, we felt very safe here despite the rundown condition of parts of the city. Georgians are incredibly hospitable and I will say that I did not worry for my safety at any point during our visit, so returning safely to our hotel we tucked in for a solid night’s sleep.