I hadn’t been out of Tbilisi this year, until yesterday (21 June 2020). The last trip I can remember was visiting Svaneti last Summer (A Trip to Svaneti….been there got the fridge magnet!). It was good to get out of the city and back into nature. Because of the COVID-19 restrictions instead of taking a marshutka (mini bus), where our numbers would have been limited to 10 and we’d have had to wear masks until we reached our destination, we went in a convoy of private cars. We were with the Adrenaline Hiking Club led by Giorgi Papelishvili. Lagodekhi is in the far east of Georgia very close to the borders with Azerbaijan and Dagestan.
Our plan was to hike from the Gurgeniani entrance of the Lagodekhi Park to the Ninoskhevi waterfall.
The whole hike to the waterfall and back takes 4 to 6 hours, and it depends on the conditions of the trail. It took us around 2.5 hours to get to Ninoskhevi Waterfall because the trail wasn’t in perfect condition. There was only a few wooden bridges across the river at the beginning and later we had to cross the river on our own several times – luckily Giorgi was there to help.
The hike to Ninoskhevi Waterfall (also known as Gurgeniani Waterfall or the Big Waterfall) is a highlight of Lagodekhi Park. The waterfall itself is really beautiful, and the hike to get there is very pleasant.
The trail travels alongside the river through very green verdant forest.
The hike was at points challenging for me, at 55, I was probably the oldest in the group and having spent three months in COVID-19 Lockdown, I wasn’t in great physical condition.
At times we had to remove our shoes and wade through the (quite strong) river, or hoist ourselves over some large boulders which required a fair amount of upper body strength.
Hiking boots are definitely not needed, but good running shoes are recommended to help you keep your balance while scrambling over rocks, and to help support your feet as you will be walking quite a bit over the rocky banks of the river. The Georgian Travel Guide says: “the path to the waterfall is not so easy for inexperienced hikers. On the way you may have to cross the river several times. You will also often have to walk on wet boulders and stones, so it is advisable to use flexible, sporty shoes.”* It took us about 2.5 hours to get to the waterfall walking at a gentle pace, about 2 hours to get back. The waterfall is 40 meters high and very scenic.
It is important to pay attention to the trail markers, especially on the way back as it can be tricky to spot the actual trail in sections. Adrenaline Hiking Club trips always finish with a supra (Georgian feast), and far too plentiful food.
Beautiful, wild and mysterious, Svaneti is an ancient land locked in the Caucasus, so remote that it was never tamed by any ruler. We had been intending to visit for ages and finally we got to visit. Svaneti’s emblem is the koshki (defensive stone tower), designed to house villagers at times of invasion and local unrest (until recently Svaneti was renowned for its murderous vendettas). Around 175 koshkebi, most originally built between the 9th and 13th centuries, survive there today. Well, now I’ve been there and got the koshki fridge magnet to prove it!
We set off from Tbilisi early on Thursday morning. There were seven of us in a Toyota Isis, an unfortunately named seven seater SUV.
First stop, apart from what George W Bush might have referred euphemistically to as “bathroom breaks”, was Zugdidi. Zugdidi is home to Dadiani Palace and a museum established by Akaki Chanturia.
Ana and Akaki
Inside the palace were many items connected to Napoleon Bonaparte and an old Larousse encyclopedia. After a brief interlude in Zugdidi, we proceeded to the Enguri Dam, a hydroelectric dam on the Enguri River in Georgia on the border with Abkhazia. Currently it is the world’s second highest concrete arch dam with a height of 271.5 metres.
The highway winding its way up to Mestia is very scenic. Mestia itself is quite touristy like the towns of Capadoccia in Turkey. Mestia is the hub for exploring the region and where we had booked 4 nights accommodation. Whilst we were there, a Thai film crew were shooting a drama “Doubleman” about Chang and Eng Bunker, the famous Siamese twins set during the American Civil War, which seemed an odd combination.
On the Friday we hired a 4 x 4 mini-van and went to Ushguli, a UNESCO world heritage site, it is at 2100m above sea level, the highest permanently inhabited village in Europe. Ushguli has some stunning panoramas and an interesting ethnographic museum.
On the Saturday, we took the ski lift to Zuruldi, (Mestia is a ski resort in the winter). The Georgian-Thai film crew were at the top filming their period drama. The Georgian government is actively encouraging overseas film crews to shoot in Georgia.
Seeing Mestia from above…
In the afternoon, we decided to do some trekking and sought to get to the Shdugra waterfall – the tallest waterfall of Georgia. A marked path starts from Mazeri village, the 8 or 9km to the waterfall may have been a little ambitious for an afternoon stroll. Our party was disorganised, the vanguard raced ahead, the rearguard was left with the bags and Ana and the middle section, confused, didn’t know whether to advance or retreat.
We got within sight of the waterfall but didn’t get right up close.
Our last day, the Sunday was spent closer to Mestia with less exertions. We visited a couple of museums: the Svaneti Museum and the Mikheil Khergiani House Museum, dedicated to a famous Georgian alpinist. Each had some interesting items.
Mikheil Khergiani House Museum
Mikheil Khergiani House Museum
Then a relaxing picnic in a meadow above Mestia.
Most of the food you can find in Svaneti (and most of Georgia) are variations of potato, cheese and dough ingredients. We tried Kubdari, a local delicacy, a beef filled bread loaf, usually seasoned with fresh white onions and Svaneti salt – a mixture of cumin, dry coriander, fennel, red pepper, garlic and salt. Personally, I prefer lobiani, the bread filled with beans.
We returned to Tbilisi on the Monday visiting Martvili Monastery en route. It is a long journey from Tbilisi to Mestia and back but the route is scenic. It is worth a visit, not just as an excuse to get another fridge magnet.
I hadn’t been outside Georgia since April 2017 (seventeen months), and my feet were getting decidedly itchy. I used to travel abroad, every three months or so. Money was quite tight, so I was looking for somewhere relatively cheap, some friendly travel agents I know recommended Hungary, Poland or Cyprus. All these options were tempting, I’d visited all these countries previously, I chose Cyprus because I wanted to enjoy some Mediterranean sun in late October. I had visited Cyprus once before in 1995, then I stayed with my first wife in Limassol and we toured the Republic in a hired car. I also experienced my first earthquake. This time with my Georgian wife, we stayed in Larnaca and took a couple of excursions, one to the Kykkos Monastery and one to the North of Cyprus. In 1995, it wasn’t possible to cross from the Republic to the North, but they relaxed the rules in 2004 and now there are many excursions available from the south to the north.
We flew with Wizz Air from Kutaisi to Larnaca direct. Usually from Georgia we take flights from Tbilisi and have to change in Istanbul for the flight to our destination. Wizz Air is a budget airline operating from Kutaisi, Georgia’s second city. The journey from Tbilisi to Kutaisi is long, around 4 hours in a coach, it was tiring and by the time I reached Kutaisi I felt a cold coming on, not the best start to a vacation. The flight is just two hours, and from Laranka Airport to our hotel was about 3km, so we were able to catch a local bus for just 1.50 Euro.
Cactus Hotel wasn’t as prickly as its name suggests, it is located in a residential district between the airport and the centre of Larnaca. Mackenzie beach is 10 minutes walk as is the Salt Lake. We chose the hotel for the location and were not disappointed. Walking to the centre of Larnaca took us around 15 minutes, there were plenty of restaurants along the seafront to choose from. Although for three nights of our week’s stay we chose to eat our evening meal in the hotel. The staff were friendly and accommodating to our needs. Breakfast was plentiful. The room was clean but a little small and the view over the street was not the most scenic. If I visit Larnaca again, I’d happily return to Cactus Hotel.
On our first day we just walked along the promenade into the town, and had a fish platter with cod, calamari, prawns and octopus. It was good to have fresh seafood; Tbilisi, our home is far from the sea and seafood is usually cooked from frozen. The cuisine in Cyprus is understandably influenced by Greek cuisine with classic Greek dishes like moussaka, kleftiko and souvlakia on many menus, we ate well during our stay.
Larnaca is the third largest city on Cyprus, it is built on the ruins of ancient Citium and has a claim for being one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. The Church of St Lazarus founded in the 9th century is impressive. In biblical times Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus and fleeing persecution in Judea came to Cyprus. He was appointed Bishop of Kition (present day Larnaca) by Paul and Barnabas. In the Republic of Cyprus there are many Orthodox Churches. In the North many of the churches have been converted to mosques or used as stables for livestock.
We were in Larnaca at the time of the Biennale Larnaca 2018 (17th October – 30 November 2018), the city’s municipal gallery had an interesting display of artworks.
Larnaca made for an interesting base, we were able to go to the beach and swim in the sea, enjoy the cuisine and shop for souvenirs but the highlight of our trip was the excursion we took to North Cyprus.
We chose an excursion, which included the ruins of Salamis, St Barnabas Monastery, Famagusta and Varosha “The Ghost Town”. At the border our passports were screened as we entered North Cyprus a “country” only recognised by Turkey. In Georgia we have two similar “countries” Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Tskhinvali Region). These disputed territories have been in a state of limbo for many years, North Cyprus unilaterally declared its independence on 15 November 1983 under the name of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, it is not recognised by the UN or the Republic of Cyprus. It has been possible since 2004 for tourists to cross the Green Line dividing the island.
Salamis was an ancient Greek city state, earthquakes in the fourth century destroyed the city. There are very extensive ruins. The theatre, and the gymnasium have been extensively restored. Numerous statues are displayed in the central court of the gymnasium most of which are headless.
Close to Salamis is St Barnabas Monastery and Icon Museum. The Monastery of St Barnabas is very important to the Orthodox Church, and is considered a place of pilgrimage. Since the troubles, the monastery has become a repository for the icons of other Orthodox churches in the north of the island. The rooms of the monastery have become an archaeological museum, I particularly like the terracotta figurines from 750 to 600 BC on display with their miniature vehicle (I collect diecast cars and have another blog for that passion: Diecast Car Collector).
Next stop was the Famagusta old Town Centre to see the Venetian Walls in the old part of the town and visit the Gothic church of Saint Nicholas and Othello Castle.
St Nicholas Church
Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque
The church of St Nicholas was converted into a mosque in 1571 after the Ottomans captured Famagusta. Othello’s Tower was built by the Lusignans in the 14th century and may have inspired Shakespeare’s naming of his tragedy, Cyprus is mentioned in “Othello“. The tower, however, is named after a Venetian governor not Shakespeare’s Moor.
The last stop was the beach located right next to the “Ghost Town” of Varosha, a long stretch of golden sand with crystal clear water.
We swam in the crystal clear waters before returning to the bus and the Republic of Cyprus.
Our second excursion was to Kykkos Monastery and the pretty village of Kakopetria.
Rain in Kakopetria
Kakopetria has quaint medieval streets but when we arrived, the heavens opened and we got soaked. Then it was onto Kykkos Monastery, the biggest and richest monastery in Cyprus, near Throni at Kykkos Monastery is the burial place of Archbishop Makarios III, first president of the Republic of Cyprus.
The rains filled the salt lake at Larnaca and the flamingoes arrived, unfortunately they chose to congregate on the far side of the lake, so I needed my zoom on maximum to get a picture.
One week in Cyprus gave us an enjoyable break, if we visited again we would go on more excursions.