Day trip from Tblisi: Jvari, Uplistsike, Gori, Mtskheta, Chronicle of Georgia

Rugs, scarves and more for sale outside the walls surrounding
Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta

Georgia has so much to offer and I was excited about our first day trip out of Tblisi. I booked a private tour with “Karlo-Georgia” on Viator that offered an interesting mix of sites from differing periods in Georgia’s long history. Our driver turned out to be George (how appropriate!), an independent guide who worked with Karlo. George arrived promptly at 10am across the street from our hotel on Rustaveli Avenue in a spiffy and spacious new SUV. I’d agreed in advance with Karlo on the sites we’d visit, but left it to George to determine the order of our stops as circumstances warranted. It’s impossible to know in advance where we’ll want to linger or move on quickly, how long a lunch break might be, traffic, whether rain will be a factor, etc., so I’m happy to be flexible.

Jvari Monastery

Our first stop was at the UNESCO-listed Monastery of Jvari with its 6th century church, a rare example of a Georgian medieval church remaining very nearly in its original state. The church sits on the site of a 4th century miracle performed by the female Saint Nino. Nino is said to have fashioned a miracle-working cross from grape vines bound with her hair which she planted atop a pagan temple. We saw this distinctive cross of Nino with its downward sloping arms across Georgia. Nino is also a common name for Georgian girls. We admired the carvings and artwork that adorned the church, but at least as impressive is the beauty of the site on which the church and nearby ruins sit and the picturesque impression created by the whole. Perched on Mt. Jvari, the monastery overlooks the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers and the town of Mtskheta, the former capital of the ancient Kingdom of Iberia. (It surprised me to see the name “Iberia” in the Caucasus when I’d always associated it with Spain, Portugal and the Iberian Peninsula, but the Kingdom of Iberia existed in present-day Georgia, circa 302 BC – 580 AD.)

Next up, we arrived in Gori, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin and home to his eponymous museum. An optional stop on our tour, I’d had mixed feelings about visiting the Stalin Museum. When George said a stop at the museum would require a museum guide and take at least an hour, we didn’t hesitate to skip this testament to a bloody dictator. George did stop so we could walk the grounds of the museum, viewing Stalin’s boyhood home and the train he used to travel. The wood and brick house sits on a patch of cobbled street sheltered under a columned stone structure. The Stalin Museum itself is a large, two-story building with wide columns, arches and ornate crenulations that even its own website describes as “pompous.” We were getting hungry at this point and asked George about lunch. He told us we were about an hour away from a favorite lunch stop which would put lunch at about 1pm, later than we preferred, but we’d brought protein bars and had water so we figured we could wait. With that understanding, we were off to our next destination.

Stalin’s boyhood home preserved within a shelter
the Stalin Museum itself appears in the background

I’d really looked forward to our next stop, the ancient cave town of Uplistsikhe, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Traces of human settlement have been found at Uplistsikhe dating to the end of the 2nd millennium BC(!) and there are structures remaining built circa early in the 1st millennium. To make this stop more fun, possible entry tickets include a wine tasting option which we went for without question. Our first dip into Georgian wine tasting! Good walking shoes are the order of the day in Uplistsikhe. We hiked up the solid rock face of a long slope to a stone cottage cut into the mountainside where local wines are on offer after a brief tour of the millennias-old history of wine-making in Georgia. Holes chiseled in the solid stone ground once held clay pots used in antiquity to age wine. We enjoyed tasting four wines, but opted not to buy. We had more hiking to do and didn’t want to carry wine bottles. Besides, we had a full day of wine tasting on the Kakheti wine route planned for the not-too-distant future. We spent the rest of our time wandering the cave dwellings and “halls” of and admiring the views of the river and more ruins below. By the time we got back to the SUV, we were really ready for lunch. There was an appealing outdoor spot right by the parking area, but George said the other place was better, David wanted to try whatever George liked, we both figured it must be close since George had told us it was an hour away as we were leaving Gori nearly an hour earlier, and I was willing to defer to David since he’s the one who’s usually hungry. So, we were off again. This turned out to be a mistake.

Uplistsikhe

As we drove back through Gori to get on the highway to Mtskheta, David and I spotted the ruins of Gori Castle. Seeing we were interested, George wove his way through the town streets until he could park at the base of a path leading up the hill to the castle. We decided a short hike up the hill would be fun so we left George with the car and headed up the path. At the beginning of our little hike, we came upon a circle of over-sized statues representing knights with various body parts missing, sort of a Knights-of-the-Round-Table-meet-Monty-Python scene at the base of the hill. After snapping a photo of David with his head looking tiny above the neck of a headless statue, we continued on up the hill. At the top, we found a small meadow enclosed in the castle walls on the top of the hill. A lone guard watched over the ruins while we admired the views, then headed back to the car, now really, really hungry.

Gori Castle and those quirky knights

At this point, it was almost 3pm and we were more than eager for our promised lunch, surely just minutes away. But, no, George informed us that the place he had in mind was an hour away. What?! It had been “an hour away” two hours ago. According to George, he meant the restaurant was an hour from Gori, near Mtskheta. I confess we were a little on the hangry side at this point. I mean, who cared if the restaurant was an hour from Gori if we were driving off in a different direction first? For a couple of hours! George was genuinely apologetic, claimed Georgians might not eat lunch until evening(!), and promised to drive “fast” to the restaurant so “maybe it would only be forty minutes.” Hmm. We told him to just keep driving safely, and kicked ourselves for not just telling George to find somewhere close to eat hours ago.

At 4pm, we finally got lunch. Hallelujah! The restaurant was a large, quirky place outside of Mtskheta with multiple dining rooms and outdoor patios. The sunny weather had turned drizzly, so we opted to eat indoors. Strangely (to us anyway), we had to pick one dining area to order meat dishes including the local khinkali dumplings, but another to order salads, sides, sandwiches, etc. We wanted food fast, so the non-meat dining area it was. We had beer, a tomato salad, and chicken salad with a Georgian corn “bagel” on benches at a big wooden picnic table. And finally got a bathroom break, too. The food was good, all was right with the world again.

After parking the car near the walls surrounding Mtskheta’s Svetitskhoveli Cathedral we approached the entrance past shops offering all kinds of souvenirs, clothing and foods. As most places we went, George knew the locals so we tasted colorful churchkhela made from walnuts dipped in concentrated grape juice at a stall operated by a woman who greeted us warmly. We browsed caps, ceramics and fruit stands and admired pressed wool vests, patterned rugs and fluffy fur hats hanging from an iron fence across from the shops. Stepping around sleeping street dogs on a paved plaza near the entrance to the cathedral enclosure, several beggar women hailed George by name, chastising him for not giving them money. He explained he’d given them money on the many tours he brought here, but that had only encouraged them. Still, he good-naturedly offered up a few coins.

Churchkhela

An arched gateway on the plaza opened to the cathedral grounds. Bearded, black-robed Orthodox priests talked with parishioners or carried wood to where work was being done on grassy areas within the courtyard. The 11th century Svetitskhoveli Cathedral is not large, but is considered one of the great cathedrals of the Georgian Orthodox world. It sits on the site of a 4th century church and is the historical site of a religious event giving rise to its name which means “living pillar.” The story behind it appears in many artworks around Georgia: According to Georgian religious lore, a 1st century Jew from Mtskheta was in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified and brought Jesus’ robe back to Georgia. When he returned to Mtskheta, his sister Sidonia touched the robe and died in ecstasy. Unable to remove the robe from her dead hands, she was buried with it. A spot in the cathedral is said to be the place where Sidonia is buried with the robe. A giant cedar tree grew from the spot from which St. Nino had seven columns made for the foundation of the church. The seventh column was said to have supernatural powers including flight and producing a sacred liquid that provided miraculous cures. [See the center image in the collage above of Jvari Monastery for a painting of this story.]

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

Entering the cathedral, we were surprised to find an open coffin containing the shroud-covered body of a priest in the middle of the main aisle. Small clusters and individual priests and parishioners came to pay their respects and chat before moving on. At one point, a priest lifted the cloth from the deceased’s face to kiss him. We learned the dead priest had been in his 90’s and much-loved. This viewing was apparently a come-and-go affair lasting some time. Feeling uncomfortable about intruding, we turned our eyes to the artwork and medieval frescoes of the church. The soaring ceiling, amazing frescoes, icons and carvings are beautiful despite the effects of time and invasions. Nevertheless, we kept our visit short.

Inside Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

I’d originally been told this day tour would take 7-8 hours, but when George picked us up at 10am, he said we’d probably be back by 4pm. We were way past that already, still at least 25 minutes from our Tblisi hotel. And we had one more stop, the Chronicles of Georgia monument in suburban Tblisi. We had plenty of sunlight and didn’t mind the long day, but poor George. Rush hour was in full swing by the time we made it back to Tblisi, but he never lost his cheer as we crept through traffic to the monument.

The Chronicles of Georgia turned out to be worth the extra rush hour time (at least for us). The massive monument sits on a hill overlooking Tblisi and near the “Tblisi Sea,” a large man-made reservoir. A large stone scroll at the base of wide stairs pays tribute to “the 3000th anniversary of Georgian statehood” and “the 2000th anniversary of Christian dissemination.” Sixteen soaring pillars at the top of the stairs depict kings and queens of Georgia. It’s an impressive spot with great views and was a fitting end to our first day trip in Georgia.

Tblisi and the “Tblisi Sea” viewed from the Chronicle of Georgia

Practical info:

I booked this day trip with “Karlo-Georgia” via Viator. The cost for the entire day was a very reasonable $130, not including lunch, entrance fees and wine tasting at Uplistsikhe, and a tip. Karlo farmed our tour out to George who also works independently and can be contacted on WhatsApp at +995 599 22 05 20. George was a good guide despite the mix-up about the timing of lunch. The SUV was spacious and spotless. We were picked up and dropped off just across the street from our hotel. We had a hassle-free, fun and interesting day.

May 2024

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