Batumi skyline, from the north

Batumi is Georgia’s foremost Black Sea harbour and beach town, and judging from its modern construction obviously booming – although taste is another matter.

Batumi, as far as I can see, has three distinct elements. There is the beach front, for which it is famous, and the associated Batumi Boulevard. There is the old town, a fairly straightforward network of narrow cobbled streets, lined by shops, restaurants and a range of old houses, from Art Nouveau to corrugated iron. Ever diminishing, more and more houses seem to be left to rot, and will ultimately collapse. And there is the modern construction boom, ever increasing, and no stopping it replacing all those old collapsing houses, as well as ever expanding along the Boulevard towards the west.

the gravel beach of Batumi, packed

and here, too, floats for sale for those who cannot swim – or don’t want to swim

the cobbled streets, in the old town

old town houses, corrugated iron and balconies

but also more stylish houses, in the late sun light

the iconic Apollo cinema in the old town

We stay in a lovely hotel in the old town, only downside being that I have to manoeuvre the Monster carefully through the small streets. But once safely left at the hotel parking, we are free to wander the alleys, admire some of the old houses, balconies, and enjoy the many restaurants. Yet, even here it is not easy to find fresh fish, the Black Sea doesn’t seem to provide a rich catch.

hotel parasols

the memorial to Ali & Nino, a novel

the mosque at the edge of the Batumi peninsula

same tower, from within

the Alphabetic Tower, honouring the Georgian alphabeth

the Meridian Hotel, with its own Ferris wheel incorporated

right next to the Ferris wheel

apartment buildings in between the modern architecture

complete with its own balconies

The sea front includes the natural harbour, protected where the old city protrudes somewhat into the Black Sea. There are just a few ships, the coastal strip is dominated by a Ferris wheel and an intricate homage to Ali and Nino, characters in one of the most beautiful love stories I ever read. The two metal wire statues are slowly rotating into each other, and away again. A few more tall buildings dominate the skyline here, like the Alphabetic Tower, the Meridien Hotel – with its own weird little Ferris Wheel incorporated -, and the tiny little mosque. Around the corner, southwest-wards, stretches what is called the Batumi Boulevard or Seaside Park, originally a few hundred meters, designed at the end of the 19th Century, now stretching over 7 km. The first part is quite nice, lots of green in between the city centre and the beach, good facilities as bars and cafes, and those all-important ice cream stands.

the so-called dancing fountains, in between the old town and the boulevard

the new-style highrise strats with the Marriott Hotel

the inverted horse-shoe of the Courtyard Hotel

another flashing new highrise

the ultimate in tastelessness, the Colosseum apartment building

But the further along the beach front we go, the more it turns into that third element of the city, the modern construction boom. All the big hotel chains have their representation, some quite nice, but others pretty ugly, culminating in the shape of a horseshoe, for instance. It is not that there is no effort to produce something attractive, it is just that in most cases this effort has failed – not helped, of course, by the apparent lack of planning. Interspersed with the hotels are the apartment buildings, some obviously from quite some time ago, some newer constructions, and many not even finished yet. The absolute winner in bad taste is the building in the shape of the Colosseum, a monstrous attempt to copy the Roman original. The Grand Gloria Hotel is a close second. Yet, I find it difficult to turn around and head back; every time I need to push a little further, to the next horrible construction. And to the next Soviet-style apartment building remaining in between the modern highrise. And at the end of the afternoon is official: Batumi is indeed the town with the most varied, yet ugliest apartment buildings I have ever seen – and that says quite something! But: photogenic they are, I think. Make sure to scoll down all the way!

more modern architectural attempts

rather tasteless highrise along the Batumi Boulevard

another monstrous hotel, the Grand Gloria

next to modern highrise, Soviet-style apartments

but – contrast -they haven’t got rid of the old apartments, yet

another fabulous apartment building

the smallest possible apartments, still with balcony

not a lot of privacy on your balcony, here

the older apartments, and the laundry solution

how a grey building can still be colourful

not all grey buildings are colourful, though

behind existing buildings, more – and higher – new ones are being built

not all of them are modern, though

and this exists, too, in between all the modern highrises

the older type balconies

and some of the ugliest apartments

not all the building has been completed yet

Alphabetic Tower, at night

a man selling floats on the Black Sea beach at Shekvetili

An afternoon at the Black Sea, in two locations quite different from each other.

It is time to explore the Black Sea. Before we settle in Batumi for a few days, Batumi with its gravel beaches, we check out the black sand of the area further to the north. With our monster – our rented 4×4 – we have no difficulty reaching the somewhat remoter beaches of Ureki. In all fairness, quite a lot of saloon cars have parked on the beach, too. There are no facilities to speak of, here, no chairs, no parasols, no showers. No beach bars or restaurants. No screaming ghetto blasters either. There are a few people, fairly far apart, all self-sufficient. The water is nice, warm. The black sand is supposed to have healing properties, but like the Tskaltubo spa waters, it fails to deal with my persistent cold.

Black Sea beach, black sand

perhaps the only facilities at Ureki, a lone hammock

one of the few real swimmers at Ureki Beach

haphazard tourists in the Black Sea

parasol parade at the beach of Shekvetili

obviously far more popular than Ureki beach

beach chairs and parasols

even wooden platforms

After having burnt to death, in a little less than 30 minutes, we move on, trying to follow the coast. The nearby small resort town of Shekvetili gives us a different view of Black Sea beach life. Full of facilities, here: children’s fun parks and a forest of beach parasols. Not really our cup of tea, but good for colourful photographs. Yet, no regrets that we are not staying here.

By the end of the afternoon – after having negotiated Kobuleti, that other quintessential beach centre along the Georgian Black Sea coast – we reach the outskirts of Batumi. Any discussion whether Kutaisi is still second city seems superfluous in the midst of end-of-the-weekend traffic jams. This is a real city.

holiday apartments at the Sun & Sea complex

more floats for sale in the village of Shekvetili

late sunlight illuminates one of the abandoned sanatoria in Tskaltubo

Tskaltubo is partly a ghost town with old Soviet senatoriums and bathhouses, one of which is still kind of operating. In the spirit of Stalin, who also stayed here.

We have booked ourselves a night in the Tskaltubo spa resort. One of the very few – if not the only one – of the health spa facilities in Tskaltubo that remains from a rich and famous past.

the dining room of the Tskaltubo Spa Resort

and the pool, with the usual suspects

The big attraction of the hotel is the very large pool, from the photos on Booking.com. In reality, the pool is much smaller, and also much fuller than on the photos – fuller with people, not water. The pool rules are clearly signposted. We are supposed to shower before entering, but the showers are nowhere to be seen. Dogs are not allowed, yet one of the guests brought his, tied behind the poolside bar, and two other dogs, belonging to the hotel, are happily drinking from the pool. Oh, and the pool is a non-smoking area, although, just in case, there are several ashtrays on the bar. But the water is fine, apparently mildly radioactive – which has healing properties. Albeit not enough to cure me from my persisting cold.

But of course we are not here for the pool, but for the hotel itself. Not easy to get into, obviously very exclusive: turning up at the gate, the guard first calls the hotel reception to ensure we are allowed in, then reluctantly opens the barrier.

not all of the corridors of the Spa Resort are being mintained equally well

neither are the stairs to Stalin’s private quarters

the desk, allegedly Stalin’s

and the rest of the building is also pretty abandoned

Driving through the park we manage to find the right building, amongst several on the complex. Already in the reception, we immediately feel the former glory. From here on it goes on, impressive staircases – and, luckily, a modern lift -, parquetted corridors and rooms, and a huge, circular dining room – complete with chandeliers -, connected to the main building by the pride of the place, a stone bridge. Never mind that not everything works that the showers are lukewarm at best, and the food in the restaurant mediocre. I can just imagine Stalin going through the same experience. Because the fame of the hotel is linked to the fact that the great man spent his vacation here, in the lovely, wooden area where the hotel is located.

Because we are curious to find out where Stalin actually stayed in the hotel, and where his private quarters where, we book a tour, next morning 10 o’clock. It is not exactly busy at the assembly point, in the reception area – it is just the two of us. When I ask about the tour, the receptionists is going to call the guide. When I ask ten minutes later again, any progress, perhaps?, she tells me he doesn’t answer the phone. Ah, but maybe the guard can take us. The guard – not the same who let us in the previous day – actually takes us to another building, pretty derelict, to the third floor, and this was Stalin’s bedroom and workroom. Right. He then told us, after a short telephone call, that the real tour guide was on his way, “just stay here”, and disappeared. Patience not being a real strength of both of us, after five minutes (or was it less?) we decided to explore the building on our own –indeed, the tour guide never showed up anymore. And after another 15 minutes, or so, through more delipidated rooms and corridors, we ended up outside again. Hmmm.

Some homework then revealed that the health and spa complex in Tskaltubo was initiated in 1950-51. Initiated, not immediately finished, mind you. Given that Stalin died in 1953, he hasn’t been here that often, I suppose. But it is a great tourist attraction, of course, even we fell for it!

this building is still being occupied

grandiose stairs to whichever derelict sanatorium

sign of abandonment, but much more recent than that of the buildings

inside the Senatorium Imereti

and another view of the Senatorium Imereti

and the stairs, past glory

this looks like an abandoned theatre, also in Senatorium Imereti

Stalin or not, Tskaltubo has much more to offer than a struggling hotel and an overfull swimming pool. The town – the complex I should say – has been planned vintage Soviet approach around a park with several bath houses, where the spring waters could be enjoyed. Surrounding the park, a ring of sanatoria and hotels was built, which at one stage was even specifically reserved for army personnel. All of which has not survived Georgia’s independence: each and every of these ostentatious buildings have been left to rot from 1991 onwards.

yet, it looks like the Senatorium Imereti does have some inhabitants, still

We went to see a few of them, but we could have spent a week here. Incredible, the capital destruction. We have observed this so many times before, in former Soviet republics, also earlier in Georgia, and in Eastern European countries – in the form of derelict factories. Here we have tens of grandiose buildings – admittedly, pretty low-cost built, marble look-alike concrete, – that with a bit of maintenance could have served any useful purpose But left to rot, they have for a while provided housing for refugees (Georgians expulsed from Abkazia during the 2008 war), and now they are just wasting away. Parquet floors are losing ever more of their wood planks, wall paper is peeling off, from walls and from the ceiling. Bathroom tiles have cracked, or are gone, all the water pipes have been removed anyhow and sold for scrap. Part of stairwells have collapsed, trees are growing through the roofs, and through the windows. Former glory. Fun to wander through, for a while, but then, they are actually cheaply constructed, and not particularly beautiful. Although fascinating enough to include lots of pictures!

Luckily, there are also some traces of old Soviet culture in town, the park and the cinema, for instance. Scroll all the way down!

the overgrown outside of official Bathhouse nr. 5

and its inside, pretty abandoned

but some of the bath tubs are still there

the outside of the Senatorium Iveria in Tskaltubo

and looking inside out

long corridors, same Senatorium Iveria

the once grandiose interior of the Senatorium

another view of past glory, Senatorium Iveria

impressive concrete stairs

and a decorated balcony

perhaps the grandewst of all, Senatorium Medea

with an impressive entrance gallery

complete with columns, high ceiling, and nowadays a door to facilitate entrance to the building

stairs to the multiple floors of the Senatorium Medea

outside corridor, equally overgrown

and yet, there are traces of people living here

more signs of inhabitants, in the form of closed of balconies

and a sculpture at the fountain, woman in bathing suit

the Soviet style entrance to the park in Tskaltubo

with an impressive, if dated, sculpture

a Soviet frieze, still surviving on one of the buildings in town

and the cinema – say no more!

fair enough, on the Georgian roads they warn you for other road users

Driving in Georgia poses certain challenges not necessarily familiar to those used to western Europe.

We all agree that driving in Georgia s perhaps a tad different from driving in any comfortable Western European country, say, The Netherlands, for instance. Georgian roads create a few challenges that we in Western Europe are not normally used to. I have already described driving into Svaneti, on a partly unsurfaced and potholed road. But it is not just the conditions of the roads themselves, what happens on the road is equally challenging.

this is why we don’t drive at night: pothole in the middle of a junction

First and foremost, of course, there are Georgian people with cars using the road. Where in most Western European countries road users take into account other road users, that is not necessarily the case in Georgia. The concept is to get a fast as possible from A to B, and if that means overtaking at high speed in a bend where one cannot see much ahead, then so be it. In my experience, the urgency seems to increase just after lunch on Saturdays, I suspect because the lunch has been finished off with a few, or more, glasses of chacha – the local fire water.

However, there is a way to make them slow down. No matter how speed-maniac the average Georgian is, as soon as there is the slightest bump in the road, a small traffic ramp, for instance, cars come to a screeching halt, to inch themselves across, before they accelerate like mad again. Only to repeat the process a few hundred meters further: villagers are smart, and know this is the only way to protect themselves if walking. Even a thick rope laid across the road will do the trick. But nothing is so effective as a railway crossing, these really need to be taken with the utmost care, everything to protect the precious car. Not seldom does this lead to a real traffic jam, kilometres-long rows of car waiting their turn to pass the crossing with the utmost care. Seriously, no other cause! And such a long row of cars then invites others again to try to overtake, because that is ultimately the quickest way to get from A to B, right? Or so it seemed at the time, because by now the whole road is blocked, and cars that have just managed the railway from the other direction, also get stuck.

cows looking for shade, comfortably under the trees – in the middle of the road

and even trickier, cows look for the shade, inside dark tunnels

Unfortunately, this concept of overtaking if you can go faster than those in front of you, is also applied on busy two-lane roads with dense traffic: there are always plenty of drivers who try to create a third lane, in between two opposing lanes of cars. And if you, as a driver, try to close off the opportunity for the one behind you to sneak past on the left, he’ll has already just done that on your right, there is no holding them back. Anyhow, I am the guest here, I adjust. But challenging it is.

What else is there, on the road? Well, there are cows, they either walk, stand or lay down on the road. Without any intention to move. So you need to avoid them – but that car coming from the other side needs to do the same. If it is hot, cows have the tendency to get into the shade of a tunnel – which is usually pitch black, only the tunnel end visible. Can be tricky. Next to cows – which I even saw on the separation in the middle of the motor way -, there are the pigs, freely scuffling along the road, some huge, others small and hairy. Yet, they provide less of a risk, because they tend to stick to the side of the road. Unlike dogs, who may, or may not, decide to chase your car. And in any case have  tendency to lay down under your car after you have parked, because, again, nicely in the shade. So check what is under your car before you drive off.

pigs have a tendancy to stay at the road side

Compared to the animals, people walking along the street are more predictable. They generally tend to move aside somewhat when a car approaches, but not too far. Only on a bicycle they are really dangerous, because they don’t know how to use it, and uncontrollably swerve from left to right. Challenging at the best of times.

Luckily, we have the monster, our sturdy 4×4. Which gives us a bit of protection, I’d like to think. And which, thanks to its stiff suspension, experiences a lot less hindrance from tiny bumps in the road than the average Georgian perceives his car to suffer from. I hardly overtake other cars here in Georgia, but I do enjoy blasting past them on poor road surfaces, when that average Georgian is inching forward – temporarily forgetting how to get quickest from A to B.

14th Century icon of John de Baptist in the Svaneti Museum of History and Ethnography

One of the benefits of the touristic development of Mestia is the upgrade of the Svaneti Museum of History and Ethnography, which since 2013 is housed in a modern, purpose-built construction. Six exhibition halls on the first floor provide room for the excellent collection of the museum, from archeological finds going back to the Bronze Age to the ethnographic compilation with the pots and pans, but also the chainmail, saddles, jewelry etc. from the last four centuries. In between is the collection of 10th to 14th C icons, both painted and in gilted silver, comparable, but more divers, perhaps, than the collection in the Kutaisi Museum.

Definitely worth a visit, if in the neighbourhood! Otherwise you will need to do with a few photos. Of my favourites.

over view of several Colchian bronze figures

another bronze miniature, in incredible detail

icon ‘Assembly of the Archangels’, wood and tempera, from 12th-13th C

icon of Saint George, wood and tempera, 13th C

extraordinary stylish image: an icon of the Crucifixion, made somewhere 11th-13th C

one of the treasures of the museum, ’40 Sebastian Martyrs’, 12th C

icon ‘Saintly Warriors George and Theodore’, wood and silver, 13th C

‘Archangel Gabriel’, wood and gilt silver, 11th C, made by a Master called Tavdidisdze

‘Saint Barbara’, gilt silver from the 11th C

front of an icon of ‘Archangel Michael’, wood, gilt silver, gems, 13th C

and the back of the same, richly decorated

several altar crosses, and painted icons

a 13th C altar cross, from wood, sheet gold, silver, pearl, gems, mountain crystal, and tempera

and this is a dtail of the same, a tiny little painting

the museum has a chainmail, probbly not even that old!

and a woden saddle, with leather straps

steep stairs inside one of the defence towers in Mestia

Mestia is Svaneti’s main town, with lots of old houses and defence towers, as well as modern architecture and tourism facilities.

If I found Ushguli already a bit of a tourist trap, Mestia is even further developed. This is the centre of Svaneti tourism, from where everything is being managed. Here the tours depart, the tracks initiate, the hikes begin. And yet, it is less disturbing then in Ushguli, where often the views of the historical cluster are being abrogated by a fancy, bright colour of a new guesthouse.

main street in Mestia, much developed for tourism

the hypermodern police office in Mestia

and hard-working local, not employed in the tourist business

Mestia has the air of a small town – although, with less than 2000 permanent inhabitants, in cannot seriously claim to be one. But there is a main street, with a bus station, lots of tourist infrastructure in the form of shops, cafes, restaurants, hotels. And there are lots of tourists around, so many that there are also lots of imported food and beverage service providers. It has an oversized, hyper-modern design police office, as well as a modern looking, equally oversized, municipality building. And here, too, every third house offers bed & breakfast, but somehow they blend in better with the rest of the village, which also has its share of defence towers.

several towers, surrounded by houses

defence tower in the evening sun

another view of towers and houses

several towers, surrounded by houses

brightly-coloured laundry

passage between defence tower and neighbouring house

another passage in Mestia

one of the frighteningly steep stairs to reach the roof of a defence tower open to the public

the roof opening at the end of the series of stairs

view from the roof, or rather, the top of the stairs

One of the towers is open to the public, and I can climb all the way to the top – a scary experience. I think I cover four or five levels, each connected by a steep, almost vertical ladder, well connected – that is not the issue – but at the end leaving an opening to the next floor which is marginally big enough to let me and my backpack through, whilst I clamber over the rim. The last ladder brings me to the roof, not a place to go and climb on, as far as I am concerned, so I stick my torso – without backpack – through, and quickly shoot some photographs. Brrrr. Going down is possibly even scarier.

the purpose -built Museum of History and Ethnography

An easier, and perhaps more rewarding visit is to the Svaneti Museum of History and Ethnography, in a purpose-built modern construction that provides a beautiful display for the museum’s treasures. There are the usual archaeological finds, but most impressive is the collection of 10-13th C gold and silver icons, many from local Svan churches. The ethnographic part of the museum – the pots and pans, but also armoury and saddles and a lot more – is definitely better arranged than those in the earlier museums of Oni, or indeed, the room in Ushguli.

a closed door at one of the churches nearby

one of the small churches around Mestia

local church, just outside Mestia – from the outside only

Because we are both suffering a cold, we don’t really get out to walk in the area. Not that we are great hikers, but under different circumstances we would have done some trips of several hours, to the local glacier, for instance. Now we limit ourselves to several churches nearby, but all of our efforts strand on the outside on the churches. The doors are closed, no indication of where to find the key, and no intention from people in the neighbourhood to provide any assistance. The church, it seems, has not yet succumbed to the tourist pressure.

outside Mestia, another hamlet with a view

the road back down, the main road this time

one of the first defence towers of Ushguli, associated with a small church

Ushguli is our first Svaneti village, not only full of the characteristic defence towers, but also of tourist facilities.

The most distinctive feature of the Svaneti area is its sheer endless collection of defence towers, tall fortified structures with strong rooms, small windows, and apparently even pre-fab gullies from the top floors, through which hot oil could be poured over attackers trying to scale the building. In times of outside stress whole extended families would gather inside, with the animals, and withstand any form of siege. The oldest foundations of the towers have been dated to the 1st Century BC, and many of the current approximately 175 towers still existing are from between the 6th and 16th C. And the largest number of towers, also the highest density per inhabitant (33 per 50 families, or some 220 people), can be found in Ushguli.

Ushguli consists of several clusters, this is the biggest

My guidebook, four years old, suggested to stay overnight in Ushguli to avoid the daily tourist influx; there is always a homestay available in one of the village clusters. No more. The tourist industry has arrived, complete with hotels, and every other house seems to be a bed & breakfast. There are cafes, and there are souvenir stalls. Entrance to the ethnographic museum, just one of the many that have sprung up, is more expensive than that to the National Historic Museum in Kutaisi, earlier this week. And all that for a cramped room with pots and pans, and other flee market stuff, that here in Ushguli receives a stamp of authenticity.

one of the Ushguli church complexes, with a glacier in the back

inside the church, fresco of Christ Pantocrator

a window, in one of the towers

one of the objects in the ethnic museum, which looks more like a flea market inside one of the towers

not all the houses are original, this one has a corrugated iron extension

local transport

tourists in droves: the vehicles, and one of the many bars in town

tourist in droves: linen of one of the hotels

two more clusters, along the access road

distant cluster of houses and towers

Don’t get me wrong, it is still a fascinating village, full of a whole range of impressive defence towers, but as so often, once discovered by the tourists, it does lose some of its originality. There are just too many comfy-dressed people that sit uncomfortably on a horse, because horse riding is the thing to do. Too many flashy four-wheel drives bumping up and down the muddy tracks between village clusters to ferry camera-wielding amateur photographers to the most ideal vantage points – never mind that, except for the horses, we did exactly the same of course. With great results.

So, we don’t overnight in Ushguli, but at the end of the afternoon move on to Mestia.

towers and roofs, which are mostly still original

part tower complex, part houses

the road to Mestia, not much better than what we had done earlier, to Ushguli

narrow and steep gorge, early on the way to Svaneti

The road to Svaneti, via Lentekhi and the Zagari Pass, gets nicer along the way, with high peaks and glaciers, and a sea of flowers.

The road to Lentekhi partly follows the Rioni river, too, the same one that passes by Oni, and further downstream flows through Kutaisi. Once again, the countryside is dominated by more rather ugly houses, randomly positioned, it seems. Even the views we get, occasionally, if the road has climbed some height above the river valley, is mostly from green trees and dissonating corrugated iron roofs.

view of the Rioni River, with random houses everwher

It is only when we turn away from the Rioni, up the valley of the much smaller Tskhenistskali River through a much narrower valley, that we start appreciating the mountains, and the occasional narrow gorges through which the road worms itself. Lentekhi announces itself with a massive sword monument, stuck in the earth. Here is also the last fuel station until Ushguli, as well as the first of the Svaneti defense towers that we have come to see.

the sword memorial in Lentekhi

and our first defense tower, also Lentekhi

more original house, with outside metal stairs ang all-window walls

lost along the road, it seems, in a private garden

a statue of Stalin, unmistakebly, unashamedly

A few kilometers past Lentekhi the tarmac is supposed to run out. But it doesn’t, it continues for a long way, whilst we keep driving along the Tskhenistskali River. We pass village after village, quite a bit of traffic from cars and cattle. Many of the houses here are much more authentic that the brick ones we saw earlier; these ones are two story, part-wood, with elaborate walls of almost entirely windows. Outside is the staircase to the second floor, often from metal, with decorated railings and a roof. No sign yet of going up across the pass, no sign yet of rough road, except for the patches that are being repaired. A small green sedan, with obviously tourists inside, is passing us – surely, they are not going to Ushguli, are they? They have no eye for the enormous sculpture of Stalin that we encounter along the road, in the middle of nowhere. What on earth is this doing here, in a garden in front of a house, with a truck parked on the side?

mountain lake, unexpected

much of the road is like this

a bit of colour along the road

Then, without warning, the tarmac stops, and the road turns left onto a dirt track. And soon starts to climb. Now we are in business! Finally we have the views of the Caucasus mountains, higher up we admire a huge glacier in the distance. When the clouds lift, so once in a while, the peak of the 4547 m high Ailama reveals itself. And everywhere, carpets of wild flowers, yellow, white, lilac, purple and pink. Fabulous!

great view of the glacier

and, occasionally, through the clouds, of Mount Ailama

and everywhere, abundant flowers

purple flowers

pink flowers

yellow flowers

The road is still not very difficult, driving is slow because of the uneven surface, but nowhere is the 4-wheel drive required. Having said that, there are quite a few shrines along the road, in places where people have obviously killed themselves driving. The Georgians do not only built the shrines, they often also build a small table with benches next to it, so that they can come and pay respect to their dead friend, by drinking a couple of glasses of chacha, the local fire water. It obviously escapes them that their friend, most likely, killed himself exactly because he himself had had too many chachas. We use one of the tables for our picnic, with fruit and water, instead.

Crossing the Zagari Pass, 2620 m high, is an anti-climax. The road continues upward, fairly straight, and then goes down again. No signs, no roadside café, nothing. We descend further, and less than half an our later we arrive in Ushguli, reputedly the highest permanently inhabited settlement in Europe, at 2100 m. We park behind a small green sedan.

the road to the pass is less exciting

a silver icon of Saint George (10-11th C) in the temporary exhibition of the Kutaisi State Historical Museum

The historical museum in Kutaisi was closed for refurbishment during our visit, but they have installed a temporary display, with the most important pieces of the collection. There are lots of items from a long history, Bronze age to 19th Century, but my interest was predominantly the Medieval metal collection. In the 10th to 12th Century, Georgian gold and silver smiths reached high levels of artistic expression, especially with the chisel technique, used to create relief in the designs by hammering from the front of the metal. Most of this was used to create gold and silver icons, sometimes metal only, sometimes decorated with precious and semi-precious stones. Many of the examples in the museum come from the mountainous areas of Svaneti and Racha.

miniature bells – for funeral purposes – approx 4th C BC

Bronze Age figure

icon of Saint George, in silver and gold (10th C AD)

icon of the Archangel Michael (11th C)

a fabulous metal triptych of the Gelati Virgin (16th C)

detail of the Gelati Virgin triptych

another detail

detail of the left side panel

and the right side panel

16th C icon of Saint George with silver and gemstones

a silver and gold processional cross (16th C)

a triptych with twelve feasts, one of the famous pieces of the museum, in wood and tempera (prob. 16-18th C)

the front of the Church of the Saint Nicholas in Nikortsminda

On the way to Svaneti, and well north of the Motsameta and Gelati monasteries, near Kutaisi in Georgia and popular with visitors, is the less well known Church of the Saint Nicholas in the village of Nikortsminda. This church was built earlier, by King Bagrat III between 1010-1014. Both its outside decorations and inside frescoes – from the 17th C – rival those of the Gelati Monastery churches of the Blessed Virgin and of Saint George, and besides, it is generally a lot less busy than the other complexes. So allow me to present lots of pictures – far too many, I know – of this church.

another frieze, above one of the doors

frieze in the outside wall

extensively decorated door inside the church

with another frieze, above the door

striking fresco inside the church

the brightly decorated dome

another decoration, of a ceiling

frescoes in the apse

and detail of some of the faces

more frescoes

and more, familiar scenes

possibly Queen Tamar, holding up the church?

note the depiction of the horse here

and same animal, quite differently painted here

details of the Last Judgment

another fresco scene

an unusual symbol in the church

and another ceiling decoration