September 20-21, 2014: In the arid southeastern part of Georgia, tucked up against the border with Azerbaijan, is a Georgian Orthodox cave monastery complex hewn out of the rocky slopes of Mount Gareja. This was to be our first stop on our Georgian driving adventure.
First though, we had to pick up a little Mitsubishi Pajero with four wheel drive at the car hire. This was an adventure in itself, the place looking somewhat like a mafia chop shop tucked next to the railroad tracks in an out-of-the-way part of the city. Lucky for us, the son of the owner spoke excellent English, having gone to school in the US.
With Chris driving through the mad Tbilisi traffic while I tried to navigate using Google Maps on a phone, getting out of the city was no easy task, but soon we were on our way and heading in the right direction, toward Davit Gareja (aka David Gareji). Or so we thought.
We almost weren’t going to go there, thinking it might make our first day on the road a long one. But it was only a modest 70 kilometres from Tbilisi and in the same general vicinity as our planned overnight stop in Sighnaghi. So we decided to swing by in the morning.
Despite how close it looked on the map, we had the first of many lessons on why it’s important not to trust Georgian maps and especially not to rely on the route options and time estimates provided by Google Maps. The drive that was supposed to take just 75 minutes started out fine on a busy road heading south to Rustavi. Once we turned southeast, the roads quickly deteriorated until we found ourselves on rough tracks up in the hills. Apparently, we were heading in the right direction but we weren’t sure if we were ever going to get there.
We got lost once or twice and sat perplexed at other times when the GPS sent us down roads that didn’t exist. We almost turned back at one point when the road entered a military zone high up in the hills with a big sign warning us not to enter. Luckily, we didn’t have to reverse our tracks, instead following a rough path along the edge of the fenced military area that eventually connected us to the other road from Tbilisi; the one that all the tour vans take, and the one that didn’t even show up as an option on our GPS.
Three hours later, we encountered a number of day trippers on van tours from Tbilisi, but we pretty much had David Gareja to ourselves as we seemed to arrive between the morning group that was just calling it a day and the afternoon group that arrived as we made our escape. It was a good thing I brought along a scarf to wear as a head covering inside the church and monastery grounds, a must for women.
The David Gareja Monastery complex began its life in the 6th Century when it was founded by David (St. David Garejeli), one of a group of 13 Assyrian monks that came to the region. Construction continued over the years, reaching its peak in the 12th and 13th Centuries. Despite a 1265 attack by the Mongul army and a 1615 massacre by Persians, it remained a spiritual and cultural centre of Georgia for many centuries. At least it did until the Soviet era. Monastic life ceased in the 1920s following the Soviet takeover of Georgia and only resumed in the 1990s following independence.
As we wandered around the monastery grounds, at least the parts that were open to the public, we could see the grottos that monks still live in today. With the addition of some modern conveniences, like windows, doors, locks and heaters, they look almost cozy.
Back on the road again, we drove through various depressed looking rural Georgian towns. Maybe the overcast skies added to the bleakness, but the decaying concrete buildings, badly potholed roads, unsmiling shepherds and general feeling of abandonment made me think that even a bright sunny day wouldn’t make all that much difference.
From Gareja, it was a few more hours of driving until we reached our night stop in Sighnaghi in the heart of Georgian wine country. All along the way, I was on the lookout for a place to stop for a bite to eat, but we quickly discovered that restaurants are not easy to find outside of the cities and the major tourist areas.
Sighnaghi, perched high on a hill overlooking the Alazani Valley and the Greater Caucasus mountains, is a fortified town built to keep out raiding Dagastan tribesmen. Or at least that’s what we were given to believe. With cloudy skies and a hazy outlook that quickly turned to a full-on downpour, the anticipated views were non-existant…at until the next morning when we woke up to a brilliant sunny day.
In some ways, Sighngaghi reminded me a little bit of San Gimignano, another fortified town we visited last year in Tuscany (see A Day in Tuscany). But where San Gimignano is awash in tourists, Sighnaghi is not so hectic, and we found a restaurant that served excellent khinghali (dumplings filled with meat or mushrooms) and a friendly wine shop where the house wine, served from a plastic pop bottle, was surprisingly good. And cheap too. Good places to wait out the rain.