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An evening in Telavi

It was still light when we got to Telavi so I set off to explore the city fortress, an attempt Vasantha abandoned when the gate turned out to be all the way round the grand walls.

There was a vast empty space within the walls, with some modern sculpture displayed in one corner, but there was also a delightful little museum, with an art gallery to boot, and on the left a doorway to the school that had been founded by the last king of an independent Georgia before the Russians took the place over. And then behind the museum and another wall was his palace, Iranian style, very simple, a box with a long throne room with rooms on either side including a simple bedroom. That brought home to me the links of these Caucasian countries to the great civilizations to north and south of them, the Russian and the Iranian. And while Azerbaijan, the first I had seen in recent times, was Muslim, there were links to the Muslim world even in Armenia.

I walked on then to the other sight Telavi boasted, a massive plane tree. That was fun, but more importantly I was approached there by a man who offered a tour of the sights round about the city, which I accepted swiftly for his price was very reasonable. He drove me back the short distance to the hotel, so he could know where to come next morning, and then Vasantha and I had dinner on the upper terrace of the hotel which commanded a wonderful view of the hills north of the city, which extended up to the Caucasus mountains. And, if not quite as splendid, behind us there was a children’s party, lots of little girls, and a few boys, in their party best, with mothers who chattered as loudly as the girls did.

The food on offer was not Georgian, but we had excellent trout, and once again there was Georgian red wine for me. And early next morning, though there was no provision for coffee in the room, the receptionist brought me coffee as arranged when I went up to work at my computer. It was glorious up there in the early light, and he duly brought up a second cup fifteen minutes later as requested.

For some reason Georgian hotel breakfasts start at 9, but they gave us ours a bit earlier, easily the best breakfasts we had, cheese or ham omelettes, crusty bread – with butter which was not generally on offer – and delicious jams as well as honey in addition to different cheeses.

I had time to linger then on our balcony with a last cup of tea, and then the driver turned up promptly at ten for what seemed a long day, seven venues and also, he suggested, if we were not too tired, a winery since this Kakheti region is the country’s principal producer of wine.  

After pictures of the fortress and the sculpture exhibition in its grounds and some interesting pieces in the museum, I show the simple palace and a picture there, and then the plane tree, with the party of the terrace to end with.

I breakfasted on some of the chicken and khachapuri while Vasantha contented himself with cherries, and then we set out in search of a taxi to take us to the Gorio fortress, which dated it seemed from Medea’s time. My Dean at Oxford, who had visited the place on a cruise, had told me the place was in ruins, but that had now changed and the walls had been restored, and there was still a great deal of work going on within.

The fortress is supposed to have been built up in the 1st century AD by the Romans and was a stronghold of the eastern Roman Byzantine Empire before being taken over by the Turks. There was a dinky little museum inside, and I walked all round, to look at new excavations too and talk to the laid back workmen, though Vasantha soon retreated to the car.

Back in Batumi I decided I should get into the Black Sea myself, and actually immersed myself, finding the water very pleasant though that could not be said of the beach which had no sand at all, just painful pebbles. But I could not loll in the sun for too long for I had agreed to meet Vasantha, who had had no intention of getting into the sea again, – for lunch at our café at noon. There another glass of wine and a snack were followed by the most delicious sweet, a larger and tastier version of the Turkish baklava.

All that set me up for a long nap after which I read Walter Scott in my sun-filled room, perhaps the first time ‘Woodstock’ got to Batumi. Then after tea on the balcony we were back at our café for another lovely dinner. Vasantha was tempted by the sweets at the next door place, which proved disappointing, but my baklava was again quite delicious.

Next morning I had a wonderful sunrise for my coffee, even though the milk was by now undrinkable. And I finished our dinner from Kutaisi and the last of the cherries. Vasantha had only coffee, but we got an early bus to Telavi and he was able to get some food at the bakery attached to our restaurant.

We were back there since I had left my jacket at the hotel, but fortunately I had realized this the day we left, and called, and they had kept it out for me though the not very competent receptionist took ages to find it.

From Kutaisi we took another bus to Tbilisi, but when we took a taxi to the other bus station where buses left for our next destination, Telavi, the driver suggested we take a shared taxi instead, and took us to the place from where these left.

That option proved surprisingly inexpensive, and relatively quick, and though the hotel I had booked in Telavi proved a dump I was able to cancel well before the 6 pm deadline and we found a lovely place round the corner with a balcony shaded by plane trees.

The pictures are of coffee on the balcony and then several of the fortress and its musuem and work there and a silly costumed picture, then the park outside the hotel and the beach beyond it, followed by a drink at lunchtime, sunrise from the hotel next morning and the landscape we passed through

After Gelati was the Motsameta Monastery which, our final stop after that grand complex, was on a much smaller scale. Since there was a short walk to it Vasantha stayed back in the car. But despite my by now aching feet I enjoyed the walk through a tranquil forest, the entrance to the complex over a sort of drawbridge, and the views over the river that encircled the place on three sides.

Back in town, we went to the Bagrati cathedral, and the ruins of the palace by it, and then collapsed at the hotel after that exhausting day. Later we went out to dinner to the same restaurant where I had the basic khachapuri imereti, which came in a very different shape, a pie with lots of cheese inside. But the pie was enormous, and the chicken dish Vasantha had was also excessive, so we had what remained parcelled up which proved just as well for it made up for a couple of meals over the next few days.

Our next stop was Batumi, which we went to by bus, getting there in the early afternoon. The hotel we had chosen was as near the sea as possible but, though the receptionist told us we had a sea view, since the room was on the second floor we saw just trees, with a tiny glimpse of blue through the leaves. But since the room was not ready when we got there, we walked down to the beach for a drink at a little café, and a piece each of the khachapuri we had brought with us.

Batumi, the mid-point of our tour, was the ideal place to relax and renew our energies. I spent that afternoon in bed, quite exhausted, though my aching feet and now splitting soles were relieved by lots of body lotion. Vasantha went exploring by himself and announced when back that he had paddled in the Black Sea, which he thought most impressive since it was incredibly cold.

He had also found a couple of restaurants, but I turned down the one in the hotel and instead we had a splendid dinner at a wayside café, where he was persuaded to taste the wine. The food there was luscious, and the lady, who introduced herself as Russo – and remembered my name the next day – was wonderfully friendly. And the wine was excellent, so I had a glass of red to follow the white I had tried with Vasantha, and then sat out on the balcony as night fell.

And I also hugely enjoyed coffee on our first morning in Batumi, out on the balcony, even though I had had to buy milk since this was not supplied by the hotel. In Kutaisi I had bought cream which was slightly sour, here the milk coagulated since the fridge had not worked. But sitting outside was wonderful, with my computer, as the light spread over the sky.

The pictures are of Motsameta and the view over the river, then the bell tower at the cathedral and the ruins of the palace there. There follows the cafe where we had dinner, while the last picture was taken at the cafe where we dined the following night, in Batumi, with in between the coast as we drove there.

Having settled into our hotel in Kutaisi, we went out for dinner. We had eaten nothing all day, except for some fruit which Vasantha had acquired in abundance, so we wanted something substantial, and were lucky to find a restaurant very near the hotel which served excellent Georgian food. I also for the first time on this visit had wonderful Georgian wine, though Vasantha has got comparatively abstemious and stuck to fruit juice.

He had khachapuri acharuli which he had been determined to taste, for it was showcased as one of the best Georgian dishes, a pastry boat baked with cheese and with an egg in the middle, a Caucasian version I suppose of hoppers. It was delicious, but so too was my choice, pork odjakuri, a stew with lots of delicious flavours, powerful and delicate.

The lady in charge was very helpful so we asked her about a taxi to take us sightseeing the next day, and she called round and found someone prepared to show us the four places I wanted to get to for a very reasonable rate. So next morning, after my coffee on the balcony and a filling if somewhat dull breakfast, enlivened by delicious peach juice replete with luscious pieces, we set off with a delightful old man called Paata.

His first stop was a spring to fill up on cool water, a phenomenon he repeated later in the day as did another driver. Then we went to the Sataplia Nature Reserve which boasted dinosaur footprints and an underground cave with impressive stalagmites and stalactites. Unfortunately I slipped going down and, though there was only a slight bruise, my slipper broke and I had to carry it, dreading going through mud in relative darkness with one bare foot. But a few yards into the cave I was pounced upon by a powerful Kazakh lady who demanded my slipper and thrust in a large safety pin which held things together for the rest of my journey.

We had a long walk back from the end of the cave path through verdant forest, termed Colchian after the country which Jason went to in search of the Golden Fleece. Medea the king’s daughter who helped him, killing her brother for the purpose, is celebrated in Georgia, despite her bloodthirsty history (later when Jason abandoned her for another princess she killed her and also her own children, to complete her revenge on the faithless hero).

After Sataplia we went to the Prometheus Cave, only a cave but heaps more dramatic than the one in Sataplia, named after Prometheus who was punished for giving fire to the mortals by being held in a cave in the Caucasus mountains. Nothing connects the Cave we saw to that Cave where his liver was gnawed by an eagle sent by Zeus, every day, to be renewed at night so it could be gnawed again next morning, but I suppose this is as good a place as any to associate with him.

From there we moved to religion, to Gelati, which has a massive cathedral which was unfortunately being restored. But at the very entrance to the complex was the church of St. George which had the most impressive frescoes we came across, and at the other end was the unusual church of St. Nicholas with beyond that the Academy with a restored roof and wonderful views across the valley beyond. To the right of these buildings was a splendid belltower, and on the left the grave of the greatest of Georgian kings, the 11th century David the Builder.

The first three pictures – if they all appear – and the last are of Gelati, including the belltower, and then we have the Colchian forest and dinosaur footprints, and two of the caves, the first evocatively lit.

While walking through Tbilisi that day I had come across a tourist driver who offered what seemed a good rate for day trips outside the city. But back in the hotel we contacted Alex the driver who had brought Vasantha from the airport, and he gave us a slightly better rate, and then added on a drive to the next city on our agenda after showing us the places in between.

So at ten on our second morning there he turned up after we had had another substantial breakfast, and we set off for Mtskheta, the capital of the country from pre-Christian days until it was moved to Tbilisi in the 5th century. But first we went to the mountain top Jhari church built at the end of the 6th century. Apart from its elegant construction, the place offered splendid views of the plain below, including of the confluence of the Aragvi and the Mtkvari rivers, which flows through Tbilisi under the latter name.

Unfortunately, for it was a Sunday, and there was a service going on, we could not get into the grand Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in the town, though we could wander within its walls with an elegant bell tower where one entered. Then as consolation I was taken to the Samtavro Church where there was also a service going on, with sonorous chanting, but I could wander around cautiously.

From there we went to Gori, Stalin’s birthplace, which has an impressive Stalin Museum. The record of his life is now complete, with his repressive side shown, albeit in a little room off the main itinerary, with pictures too of the recent war between Russia and Georgia. Earlier in the National Museum I had seen at the very top of the building an account of how nationalist Georgian aspirations were repressed after the Soviet revolution. But in all fairness the Gori Museum did make clear the achievement of this quondam seminarian, who had such an impact on the history of his country and also of the world. And it was also fun to enter the train in which he had travelled to Yalta for the famed conference with Churchill and Roosevelt which in effect divided up the world for the next fifty years.

I asked then to be taken to Gori fortress, which involved a climb that Vasantha avoided, up to an impressive gate though there was little to see inside the walls, except for the view outward. Then it was on to what was described as the cave city of Uplistsikhe which Vasantha had been keen on, but which he then avoided walking round. His excuse was that it was not really a city, and certainly it had nothing like the underground buildings of Cappadocia, but the buildings extending into deep caves were fascinating, including temples and churches and the Hall of Queen Tamar, with again a church at the top.

After that long haul to the top I went to a little hall where wine tasting was on offer, including of a very pleasant red wine described as Stalin’s favourite. And then it was onward, through dramatic scenery, to Georgia’s second city, Kutaisi. We had not booked a hotel, but Alex called up the place I had looked up that morning, and having first quoted a high price they rang back to offer us a room at a reasonable rate. That too was a very pleasant place, with a balcony looking out on verdant trees, where I had a relaxing cup of tea after dinner.

I have highlighted the subject of the pictures. There are two of the Stalin Museum including the railway carriage, first the house where he lived and then a portrait of him with Mao Tse Tung; and there are five of Uplistsikhe.

It was not too difficult, though a trifle expensive, to go to Georgia on my return trip from Paris, or rather from London, for I went after Paris to England so I could have a few days in Oxford. Gettng from London to Tbilisi involved a night flight via Azerbaijan, which brought back memories of my exploration of that country in 2015.

The hotel I had booked in Tbilisi, down an obscure side street, turned out unexpectedly beautiful, with quaint splendidly decorated rooms. But tempting though the bed was, and tired as I was, I went exploring, to the main street Rustaveli where I got myself an opera ticket, for a performance on my last night in Georgia of ‘Manon Lescaut’. I went also to the National Museum and visited a little church which was much older than the building which now housed it. But then I was too exhausted to do more, and headed back and slept early, just as well for Vasantha arrived at five in the morning.

Fortunately for him breakfast was served only at nine, so he snatched a little sleep, and then we set off at once, to wander up from the centre of the city to its heights, finding our way up narrow streets and dropping in on two exquisite little churches on the way. At the top we found a massive statue in aluminium of a lady who represented Mother Georgia, and from there we dropped down to the Nariqala Fortress, originally a Persian citadel.

Vasantha, in a pattern I had got used to during our first trip together, in Laos, gave up when we got to the funicular and stayed there, claiming the walls of the fort were quite enough to see. I went down to the fort entrance, and climbed up the walls which afforded good views on all sides, before getting back to the funicular.

We had a spectacular ride down, crossing the river, so we then had to walk back across a bridge to look at a whole host of old churches and the history museum which is in an old caravanserai, though much tarted up. We had walked up first and then down, towards the bottom of the heights, and then Vasantha stayed put in a pleasant square while I crossed the river again by another bridge, to see the Metekhi church, on the site of the palace built when Tbilisi became the capital. But after I crossed back again, to the Armenian cathedral where I had left him, he had his reward for we went to the baths, which are a special feature of Tbilisi, celebrated by Pushkin.

I did not think them in the same league as the hammams in Turkey, or elsewhere in the Arab world, but it was pleasant enough, and certainly very good for my poor aching feet. The massage I felt was perfunctory, but I did feel better after it, and we could then stagger back across the river, to the nearest underground station to head back to the hotel. And by the underground there we had an excellent Georgian dinner, before collapsing.

The pictures are of frescoes and the church in the fortress, taken from the funicular as was the view of the city from on high that follows on the clocktower, an ornate gateway to a church and two very different attractions in the musuem, my state of exhaustion after the steam bath, the Metekhi church and a view from there of the river, and then more frescoes.

Though as I noted our ambassador in Moscow and his family were enormously kind during that 1975 visit there, the most support was provided by Piyadasa, who had worked at home and then been found a position at the Attorney General’s office where my father worked. The first trip round Sri Lanka that I remember well, when we took our Indian friend Mohan Bhatkal on a tour, was with Piyadasa, ten years earlier, and he drove and looked after Mohan and my brother and me very capably. Unlike all the other staff at home, his first allegiance was to my father, and over the years he and his family became fast friends.

He had been in Moscow in the embassy in the sixties, but had come back before my first visit there, in 1972. He married while in Colombo, and later went back to Moscow with his wife Lily. She had just had a baby when I got to Moscow, prematurely so the child was in an incubator for months, and likely to have died had not the Soviet system, as Piyadasa put it, provided excellent care.

Despite his worries about his wife and the new-born baby, Piyadasa had got me a train ticket for Tiflis as I had requested. As I wrote home in a letter after I had got to Oxford, ‘I had a 4 berth compartment with two large Georgian ladies, who insisted on feeding me – with appalling effects on my stomach – and showing me pictures of their offspring, and an old man who snored but got off at Rode, and then a young man who kept buying me beer and wine. It was all very pleasant, though communication was non-existent or rather monosyllabic, and most of those trite. In addition a Muslim from Azerbaijan rushed into our compartment at frequent intervals and embraced me, crying ‘Mussulman’ to the horror of the rest of the compartment who insisted that I was a Christian (Cries of ‘Nyet, Nyet Mussulman’). 

The landscape itself was spectacular, though regrettably we missed, if we did pass them, the highest peaks as they must have been at night. However, I saw them on my return, ridges of thickly packed snow. Tiflis itself wasn’t particularly exciting, and I left in a day, but it was fun walking round for a bit, the local population being very friendly, summoning a car once when I asked directions, putting me on the right buses and even buying my opera ticket – I went to ‘La Traviata’ by the Georgian State Opera in the evening.  Friendliness here reached an unfortunate depth when a rather slimy man attempted to place his hand on my knee (‘I didn’t know they had those in Russia,’ said Leslie).  It was in the 2nd Act as well, which was unforgivable. I still regret only changing my seat and not screaming and upstaging Violetta who, one must admit, did a good job despite having to sing in Russian, which has more syllables than Verdi had music, and suffered from changes of scenery that took longer than the acts themselves. Indeed, at one stage the conductor failed to appear for 10 minutes after the lights had gone down. It was still good fun though, and a pity the theatre was just 1/3 full.

The pictures are of the opera house which I went to on this visit for a rousing performance of ‘Manon’. I do not think this was the venue at which I saw ‘La Traviata’ in 1975, for I have a memory of that having been outdoors.

I begin with the new year a new series. On this blog towards the end of last year there were accounts of the last two journeys I made in 2022, to Kerala and then to Italy and Croatia. But the earlier two, to Georgia and to Rajasthan, I had only recorded on my Facebook page, so I thought I would now describe them here. There will be some repetition, which I trust will not be a problem, given that the audiences for the two outlets are not the same. But I will try to adopt a slightly different approach, with the type of detail that the Editor of the Sunday Island thought would make travel writing more interesting.

In Facebook I did not look in detail at my previous visit to Georgia, when it was part of the Soviet Union. That figures in Off the Beaten Track , the last book I published last year, which covered travels in several countries of the former Soviet Union, as also in South East Asia. The section about Georgia I thought worth including in that book for completeness, though I was there just for one night. But I also much enjoyed the journey there by train. And the pictures today relate to that visit, the first two being taken last year, of the Caucasus mountains which I delighted in crossing by train in 1975. The others are of the Tretyakov Gallery and one of its early icons, and then Nirekha Weeratunge whom I was delighted to work with 20 years later.

This time I went to Georgia largely at the behest of Vasantha Senanayake who wanted to see a new country on his way back from the United States in early July. Since I had meetings in Paris in late June, and thought that I should make an effort to overcome the lethargy about travel that had beset me after coronavirus, I agreed to meet him in Georgia, a place I had wanted to get to after I had hugely enjoyed the other two former Soviet republics in the Caucasus, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Those two I had not been to before, but Georgia in fact I had visited in 1975, on my way back to Oxford. Aeroflot provided the cheapest flights between London and Colombo in those days and, having only changed planes in Moscow on the way home, I decided to have a longer stopover in the Soviet Union on the return journey.

And while there I took the train to Tbilisi in Georgia. That had been a magic name to me, more so in its original form Tiflis, from the time I read the Ruritanian novels of Anthony Hope, though his Ruritania was nearer the Balkans. But from then the idea of little kingdoms nestling in high mountains fascinated me, and I was lucky in that contacts in the Embassy in Moscow were able to get the necessary permissions and tickets.

We knew the ambassador, Soma Weeratunge, whose son had married my cousin Kshanika in August. Before that, though I do not recall meeting him then, he had been the partner in medical practice in Kandy of Aeneas Wickramasuriya, the good friend of Hope Todd with whom I spent many happy holidays.

In Moscow Soma and his wife Dayanitha and their two younger daughters were immensely hospitable. The older of them, still a schoolgirl in 1975, Nirekha became a good friend twenty years later after she joined Sabaragamuwa University and together with her husband Ralf Starkloff was a tower of strength in the reforms I initiated. Soma himself was a great lover of art, and I went with him to the Tretyakov Gallery of Russian art which I had I think missed out on earlier where he commented knowledgeably about different styles of painting.

Rajiva Wijesinha


January 2023
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