December 5, 2020
Morning view of Mt. Kazebgi from our room

Qatar and Georgia (November 2017)

We left Jordan on November 6th, heading to Tbilisi, Georgia. But first a 5-hour layover in Doha, Qatar, where we got to visit with Allison/Alessia. She is our exchange student from the Ukraine who spent almost a year with us in Charlotte. She is now a flight crew member for Qatar Airlines. She just finished her last day of training. She met up with us as we left Customs.

We all crowded into a cab and went to find a place to eat – Allison suggested a crepe restaurant, so off we went. How good to get to spend a few hours with her. What a crazy fancy city Doha is. Lots of glitz and sparkle.

Then we hustled back to the airport and boarded our plane to Tbilisi, Georgia.

We arrived at our AirBnb in Tbilisi after 1:30 AM on November 7th. Fortunately, the owner’s friend picked us up at the airport and we met up with the owner at the apartment.

The next morning, we explored part of Tbilisi, following a recommended route from Lonely Planet.

Dinner was at a really nice restaurant, Barbarestan, a few blocks from our AirBnB. When we walked past it, Drew decided that was were we should go for dinner – we did. A February, 2017, New York Times review, say that Barbarastan is “housed in an old butcher shop with meat hooks still visible and caged singing canaries. Family-owned, the restaurant drew its menu from Georgia’s beloved 19th-century cookbook by Barbare Jorjadze, who celebrated the Silk Road influence of her country’s cuisine. While her cookbook remains a strong influence on other local dining spots too, Barbarestan’s fare shows fealty in all details.” We actually got to leaf through the cookbook, one of the restaurants treasures.  The food was excellent and the wine was very good.

The next day Pat and I went to the train station to get tickets to Yerevan, Armenia. Unfortunately, we didn’t have all the passports, so we had to walk back to the apartment to get the others. It was raining the whole time, so we got pretty wet. While I went back to buy the tickets, the rest of the family went to lunch. One of the interesting things Drake ordered was khachapuri, the country’s national dish.

Khachapuri
Khachapuri

After lunch, Jenny and the boys, went downtown to find a rental car, as we were leaving that afternoon to drive north toward the Russian border, then on to a couple of other places around Georgia. They arrived back at the apartment with an older Honda CRV with 101,000 miles on it. We loaded the CRV with our luggage and started out of town. Unfortunately, the car’s steering was bad and the “check engine light” was on, so we returned to the rental company and got a slightly newer CRV.

We drove to Stepantsminda, along the Georgian Military Highway that connects Georgia with Russia. By the time we got out of Tbilisi, it was dark and rainy. As we got into the mountains, we went through several patches of dense fog as the road became very twisty. Most of the time we followed other cars and trucks. We weren’t about to pass on the curves (even though many people did).

We had made a reservation at an AirBnB in Stepantsminda, but the side road to it was blocked by parked cars and Google Maps didn’t show us any other options. When we called the AirBnB for directions, no English speakers were available, so we cancelled. We found another place to stay, Uptown Boutique Kazbegi. We arrived here in the early evening, and were lucky to find 2 rooms on the same floor. We found a great little restaurant around the corner and sampled some good local beer.

Uptown Boutique Kazbegi
Uptown Boutique Kazbegi

The reason we were in this town was to see Mount Kazbegi and the Gergeti Trinity Church. Our rental car agreement specifically stated that we could not go on roads such as the one up to the church, so we arranged a driver and his 4-wheel drive minibus to take us to the church. We were so glad we didn’t attempt the drive as the ruts and rocks in the road would have severely damaged our car.

After returning to the hotel, we packed the CRV and drove to our next stop – a two-night stay at the Schuchmann Wines Chateau and Spa, near Telavi. As we descended the Military Road toward our next stay, we stopped so the boys could play in some snow and found a roadside restaurant to have lunch.

In order to save 15 minutes for the trip to Schuchmann’s, we took a road that avoided returning to Tbilisi. Wrong move – Google Maps! The road we drove across was a dirt road that prevent us from driving more than, perhaps, 30 mph. (I think this was one of those roads the rental car company wanted us to avoid.)

On this road, we were confronted with a herd of sheep and goats that stopped us dead in our tracks, with one of the shepherd dogs sitting in front of the car, glaring at us. In addition, we also ended up at a dead end in a cemetery somewhere near our destination. We decided Google Maps can’t always be trusted and we should turn around as soon as we say “this can’t be right”. Jenny describes it best in her blog post.

Schuchmann’s was a nice place to spend a couple of nights. The food was good (and reasonable) and so were the wines. We especially liked the wines made in Kveri (or Qveri), earthenware amphoras.  Our the bathrooms had heated floors and a great towel warmer (which doubled as a drying rack for some of our clothes).

The next day, Pat and I went to a couple of other wineries in the area. At the last one we visited, we bought a couple of bottles to bring back to the U.S.A.

After our 2-day stay at the winery, we drove to Akhaltsikhe to stay at Marina’s Guest House. The route here took us through Gori, the birthplace of Stalin, and within a few miles of South Ossetia (a disputed area with Russia that has seen much fighting; the U.S.A. considers the Russian occupation as illegal). We drove through Gori, looking for a place to eat, but didn’t stop and, unfortunately, didn’t see much. Later we stopped at a “fast food” stall along our route and picked up some sandwiches and a small roasted chicken, which we ate while driving.

We drove on the “pink” route, with a detour through Gori (we were also in Stopantsminda)
We drove on the “pink” route, with a detour through Gori (we were also in Stopantsminda)

We also stopped at a couple of fortresses (Slesa Fortress and Atskuri Fortress), neither of which were planned stops, but were visible from the road, so we stopped to explore.

The over-night at Marina’s was just a stop on the way to Vardzia and a famous cave city. However, along the way we made two additional stops – the Georgian Orthodox Sapara Monastery and Khertvisi Fortress. As we approached the Monastery, we could hear singing and a monk stepped out the door (to answer his cell phone) and motioned for us to enter. Inside, where we could take no pictures, we watched a mass being said and a group of four monks singing, or chanting. Beautiful.

We stayed at  Valodia’s Cottage Guest House and Farm. The Cave City and Monastery was our goal. It didn’t disappoint. Although we explored many parts of this UNESCO site, we didn’t realize until we left that we had missed the actual monastery! Now we’ll need to go back if we’re ever in that region again.

After another one-night stay, we went back to Tbilisi to catch a sleeper train to Yerevan, Armenia. The train left Tbilisi at 8:30 PM and stopped twice on the way: at about 10:30 PM, for 1/2 hour, where Georgian border control stamped our passports; and then, for an hour (11:00-12:00 PM) for the Armenian border control to check our passports. As with the train in Egypt, we didn’t get a good night’s sleep.

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