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What Doesn't Kill You

...makes a lasting impression

sunny 93 °F

Svaneti Valley

It was to be our last day in the Svaneti region. Both Mike and I had wanted to do some hiking in the mountains while we were here. The previous day, we had asked at the information office about relatively short hikes that we could easily follow. They confirmed the info from the guidebook. There was a hike from town that went to the top of one of the surrounding ridges to a cross that had recently been erected. We stopped to pick up a couple of bottles of water each and headed out.

Up we climbed. The trail up was nearly vertical in a few spots and I worried if I'd bitten off more than I could chew. The more beautiful views around each corner kept me going forward. We'd stop now and then to rest and just take it all in. THIS was why we came here. About half way to the top, the footpath meets up with a jeep track. Just as we got to that point, Mike noticed some horses coming up the track. A couple on horses stopped to ask if we'd come up the trail. They looked incredulous and said theirs was the easy way. We agreed.

Off they rode, and on we climbed. It was a very hot, sunny day. But beautiful! We'd pass mountain pastures with views that just kept getting better. I was afraid I'd be jaded of what we saw by the time we got to the cross. I needn't have worried. As we got close, I had a sudden burst of energy and nearly ran (or as close to running uphill as I was capable) to the top. It just doesn't get any better than this!!!

View from the top

360 views of the valley and mountains surrounding us everywhere we looked. We sat down to rest and immerse ourselves in the atmosphere. The scenery here was worth the entire trip. We lingered, taking pictures from every angle.

Sadly, it was finally time to head back. This was the point I was least looking forward to. Those near vertical climbs coming up meant near vertical drops going down. My knees started to protest after a very short time but I was not going to let them get the best of me. Down we went, picking our footing as carefully as possible. I managed to not slip until we were within 1000 feet of the trail end. I was very impressed with myself that that was the worst that happened.

Cabin with a view!

We ended the evening at the hotel, sitting on the patio enjoying cool drinks, dinner and magnificent views. As the sun started to set, Mike remembered seeing a photo of the towers lit up at night. We sat on the deck, waiting for the sun to set. We were rewarded with another hilight of the trip. This vacation just keeps getting better!

Tomorrow we would start the long trip back to Tibilisi. This time, we'd be going to Zugdigi to catch the overnight train to Tibilisi. Hopefully, I'll get a chance to dream. I dont think any dream could possibly compare to the past few days in the mountains.


Night view of Mestia

Posted by Jengt 02:54 Archived in Georgia Comments (1)

A Bittersweet Goodbye to Georgia

sunny 93 °F

St George slaying the Dragon - Liberty Square

Our train arrived at the main Tibilisi train station at 6:30am. It had been a rough night. Mike had purchased first class sleeper tickets for us for the trip back from Ushguli to Tibilisi. We figured the 15 Lari (approximately $10) tickets beat spending $75-$100 for a hotel for the night. Maybe, maybe not. The train compartment was stuffy and you couldn't open the window. The "air conditioning" didn't kick in unless the train was running at full speed - which it did for a maximum of ten minutes before it pulled into another station. Neither of us got a good night's sleep.

We stopped by the hotel Mike had booked to see if they would let us check in early. We really didn't want to carry our heavy packs around all day until we could check in. The woman at the desk let us drop our bags until noon when we could get our room. We decided to walk around Tibiilisi to see some of the local sites I had not yet seen. It was Sunday, so some places (churches) were having services and some opened later than usual. Out first stop was the Metekhi church. Services were in session and I had not brought my scarf. The chapel was standing room only, so we took a few photos of the outside and moved on.

Anchiskhati Basilica - The oldest surviving church in Tibilisi

Next, we'd tried to catch the cable car up to the Narikala fortress looming over Old Town. It didn't open until noon and it was just 10am. Time to rethink our plans. We wandered around the riverside park a little and then wove our way back through Old Town towards Liberty Square. On the way, we found a couple other churches Mike had not yet found, one of which was the oldest church in Tibilisi, a quirky clock tower and a part of the old city wall. The main attraction we were headed for was the Museum of Georgia. I was expecting a lot of ancient history information regarding the different civilizations that had inhabited the area. What we found was a collection of jewelry and goldsmithing from ancient times that held some very beautiful items. One of the other exhibits was on the Soviet occupation of Georgia. I was shocked and horrified to see how the Soviets had targeted not just the elite families, but the "Inteligencia" - the poets, musicians, scientists, clergy - anyone who held the cultural heart of Georgia. It was definitely a sobering experience.

After the museum, it was finally time to check into our hotel. We unpacked, dropped off some laundry and headed back out to see more of the city. I felt bad that Mike was having to see a lot of this again, but we did manage to find a few places that he missed in his previous visit to Tibilisi. We decided after dinner to make it an early night since we were both tired and had scheduled another big sightseeing day for our last day in Georgia.

When we were planning the trip, there was one place near Tibilisi that I asked Mike to hold off seeing until I got here - the nearby town of Mtskheta. Here, we're several old churches and a monastery that is the most sacred place in Georgia. How could I not want to see that? Our 1 lari (60 cent) marshrutka ride got us there in about 20 minutes.

Samtavro Church

We started off at Samtavro Church. As we walked in, we noticed the room full of nuns and novitiates cleaning every inch of the church. Including scrubbing the marble floors with steel wool! What we didn't see was a "no photography" sign. In one corner, are two beautifully carved stone sarcophagi for King Mirian and Queen Nana who are buried in the church. As I was taking a photo, one of the older nuns came over and asked me to not take photos. She asked what language I spoke and walked off. Mike and I continued to take in the beauty of the frescoes on the walls and ceilings. As we were starting to leave, the older nun brought over one of the novitiates who spoke English (sort of) to give us a brief lesson of the church. She was genuinely thankful that we were interested in their church and history. I mentioned to Mike that if the woman from the cathedral in Telavi had been kinder, as this nun was, I would have come away with a more favorable impression of the church. I will always remember this nun and her gentle understanding.

From here, we walked to the walled Svetiskhoveli Cathedral. Not knowing which way to get to the front entrance, we ended up walking all the way around the wall. We entered the the cathedral through an impressive gate and through a courtyard. From there, we walked into the cathedral. It was beautiful! And, there was no sign saying we couldn't take pictures. Mike & I started snapping away. This was one of the more crowded sites we had been to. And I can see why. The frescoes were much more colorful than many we had previously seen. We spent quite a decent amount of time wandering around the church and the grounds.

Jvari Church

There were three more sites in the area that Mike and I wanted to see, but they were not within walking distance. As we walked down the street, a taxi driver asked if we needed a car. We agreed on a price an hopped in. First up was Bebris Tsikhe, a ruined feudal period castle. There's not much left but a few walls, but it was cool to climb through anyways. Next, was the main reason for coming to Mtskheta - Jvari church. The church was built around 600 AD on the site where King Mirian was converted to Christianity and later erected a cross. Jvari sits on a hilltop overlooking the city. I have to say, I was extremely underwhelmed. All of the build up to this and there really wasn't much to see. It just didn't live up to the hype.

The last stop was to be a site that wasn't in my guidebook but was in Mike's more recent one. Armaztsikhe Bagineti is a pre-Christian site on a hill across from Jvari. The guidebook didn't say much about it but we decided to check it out anyways. Here, we were both very pleasantly surprised. It appears to be a site that is currently under excavation but is open to the public. There were Roman style baths and an area that could have been the residence of the king of the time. It doesn't appear there have been many visitors to the site. In fact, there is no real parking for it. The taxi driver had to just park along the side of the road as he waited for us.

Armaztsikhe Bagineti

It was time to head back to Tibilisi. We were dropped off at the stop for the marshrutka. I was thinking that this had been an interesting day. The places I thought would hold the most interest didn't and the sites I thought would just be ok were the ones that were most memorable.

The rest of the afternoon was spent catching up on e-mail and resting up. For dinner, we found an Irish pub that the guidebook said had "the best damn burgers" in Tibilisi. Mike was tired of Georgian food by now so we opted for more American fare. It was good. Maybe not the best I'd ever had, but it hit the spot.

We then walked down to the river park to get some night pictures of the Freedom bridge and the castle walls high above. In the park, there is a fountain that is choreographed to music. I took way too many pictures of it. Even thoughit was still early in the evening, we had to call it a night. Our early flight meant a 4am wake up.

Fountain in the Park

Posted by Jengt 14:48 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

The Long Road Home

At times, a comedy of errors

sunny 78 °F

View of Tibilisi

Our Ukraine Air flight from Tibilisi to Kiev was scheduled to leave at 7:30am. Mike & I decided it would probably be best to get there about 2 hours early, not knowing what kind of security or other issues to expect at the Tibilisi airport. This required waking up at 4am so we could get packed and ready. Ugh! We arranged with our hotel to call a taxi for us to be there at 5am for the drive to the airport.

Not long after we got to the airport, they called our flight to check in. After getting our boarding passes, we headed upstairs to where Passport Control and the gates are. There were only a few people going through Passport Control which was pretty amazing. We still had some time so we decided to have a little breakfast before boarding began. Ah, the calm before the storm.

I have to explain how I've found that airports in Georgia and Ukraine work. There are jetways, but nobody uses them. All of the planes park out on the tarmac and you have to be bused in from the plane to the terminal and from the terminal to the plane. I don't know why. Once our flight was called, we all went through security and were then sent downstairs to get on a bus. Yes, a bus. They tried to cram the entire plane's passengers and their carry-on luggage onto one bus. When there were only 5 or so passengers left to get on, they finally called a second bus to get them since we were crammed on so tightly we were nearly holding each other upright. Nice.

I have to say, the flight to Kiev was quite nice. We landed in Kiev on time - which was great. This was the tightest connection we had allowed for the whole trip. We only had 1 1/2 hours to make it to our Kiev to Zurich flight. THIS is where the old Soviet era craziness is still out there for all to see. We were bused from our plane to the terminal. We were all then sent upstairs (no escalators) to the transfer desk where the ONE person at the desk tells us to sit down with pretty much every passenger from our previous flight and wait to be transferred to the other terminal. She then escorted us back downstairs and back onto a bus. We got over to the other terminal where we all stood in line for 2 Passport Control agents to check us all over and pass us through. Mike and I barely made it through the door as our flight was being called to board...back onto a bus. We all got on the bus and were taken back out to our new plane that was parked no more than 100 feet from where the plane we came in on is parked. You just gotta love it!

View of Zurich along the river

From here, the day was smooth sailing. We landed in Zurich around noon. Since our connecting flight back to the US leaves earlier in the morning, we had an overnight layover. What a great chance to check out Zurich! Mike had previously been to Switzerland (yeah, I know, big surprise there) but he hadn't been to Zurich. We decided to see some of the city while we were there. Prior to our trip, I was given the task of researching Zurich and booking the hotel. Mike did most of the planning for Georgia so I figured I could handle one afternoon. I had read that the public transportation system in Zurich was fast and easy to use. They were not kidding! You can get a simple 24 hour pass that entitles you to as much bus / tram / train and boat travel you want. And, it was pretty cheap. We found our train into the city and from there the Traveler's Information desk gave us an overview of the city and some directions and we were off to check into our hotel.

We decided to check out Rick Steve's version of a walking tour of downtown Zurich. We walked down Bahnhofstrasse, the main (very expensive) shopping street in Zurich. Definitely not my cup of tea. There were also a couple nice parks, one of which (Lindenhof) is on top of a hill where the women of Zurich defended the city from the Hapsburgs while the men were engaged in battle elsewhere.

Bird drinking from a fountain in Lindenhof Park

There were also several churches along the tour. One of the churches, Fraumunster, had a big write-up in the guide book on the stained glass windows designed by Marc Chagall. The windows were very modernistic - not what either Mike or I expected. The most unexpected part of the walk was a walkway over a recently discovered Roman bath found when they were doing some repair work. There was great signage explaining the area that had been excavated and what was found.

After our walking tour, we ended up at the northern tip of Lake Zurich. Our transportation pass allowed us a discount on the 1 1/2 hour round trip lake tour which sounded like a great way to cap off the day. It was nice to sit and relax with a beer watching the hills and city pass by.

View along the Lake

We ended the day with dinner at Zeughauskeller which was an armory in the 1500s. It has medieval armor and weapons decorating the walls. The food was good and (for Zurich) relatively cheap. By the time dinner was done, we decided to head back to the hotel to finish a few things and call it an early night. It would be another early morning to catch our flight back to the US and home.

I'd like to say the rest of the trip also went smoothly, but we did have a few issues. Without going into too much ranting and raving, let's just say I probably won't be flying through Philadelphia for an international trip anytime soon.

Even with the few problems on the trip home, it had been a wonderful and amazing trip. The hilights outweighed the hiccups by leaps and bounds. I will always hold dear the beauty of the Svaneti region, the kindness of the people, and all of the wonderful sights of Georgia.


Posted by Jengt 10:56 Archived in Switzerland Comments (0)


The anti-spring break

snow 25 °F

When it came time to start thinking of where we would go for spring break this year, Mike & I started throwing ideas around. One place that we've been looking at for years was Iceland but it just never worked out. This year, we must have hit just the right timing because we found a great package with both airfare from Boston and 6 nights hotel for only $600. Who could pass that up?

I know, who goes to Iceland for spring break? It's cold. Well, it's not any colder than here in Columbus. In fact, it's warmer in Reykjavik, Iceland today than it is here. Plus, there are some really cool things to see in Iceland. Where in Florida can you see Vikings, glaciers and the "original" geyser. (Take THAT Old Faithful!)

What will be be doing and seeing in Iceland? It depends. Our number one priority - if Mother Nature agrees - is the Northern Lights. We've both been itching to see them and hopefully the weather will cooperate. There are also a lot of Viking sites and other cool places to check out. Some may depend on the weather. We're actually going into this somewhat unplanned. Which is very much unlike us. We'll have to take it day by day to see what we can see...maybe a whale?

I've got my wool sweaters laid out with my warm Peruvian hat and gloves. I'll be toasty warm. So, stick around and keep an eye out. I'll post updates and pictures as I can.

Here's hoping for clear skies!

Posted by Jengt 09:51 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Dipping my toes in Viking territory

semi-overcast 35 °F

What a day. Or, rather, 2 days rolled into one. I started my preparations for this trip at the very last minute. Our flight to Reykjavik, Iceland was to leave at 2pm on Friday but I was still running errands and doing laundry until late into the night on Thursday. Oops!

From Columbus it was another hop, skip and jump kind of travel day. We lucked out, for once though, no crying babies on any of our three flights. Amazing!

We touched down at 6:46am in Iceland - just as the sun was rising. What a strange landscape! This part of Iceland is quite barren and covered by volcanic rock. It's almost lunar. Breezing through passport control and customs, we grabbed our bus which dropped us off at our hotel - Hotel Klopp. Yes, Klopp. At least it's easy to pronounce. The Icelandic language is another of those where there are way too many consonants and strange pronunciations. We checked in and went to our room. Those of you who have been on cruises would be very familiar with our room. The only difference is that we have a slightly larger bathroom and a real window. It's TINY. It really does NOT look like the picture on the web. Oh well, we won't be spending much time there anyways.

View of Reykjavik from Hallgrimskirka

We settled in and hit the road. Today was planning day. Since so much of Iceland sightseeing depends on the weather we were unable to plan much ahead of time. Our first stop was the Tourist Information Office. We picked the brain of a very nice lady and got an idea of our general plan for the week. We've decided to take a couple of pre-packaged tours and also to rent a car for a couple of days to see some of the more out of the way places. Hopefully, things go as planned. Stay tuned for the outcome on that!

Plans set, we decided to take the rest of the day getting our bearings and seeing a few sites. We wandered the streets looking for good views and getting slightly lost. Downtown Reykjavik is a quaint smallish city with little streets and colorful buildings. Such a nice change from cookie-cutter Columbus, Ohio. The first major site we visited was Hallgrimskirka which is an immense church with a clock and bell tower that affords breathtaking views of Reykjavik and the surrounding area. Inside, the church is very plain except for a beautiful pipe organ. The organist was playing while we were there. What angelic sounds! In fact, there will be an organ concert of Bach and Mozart pieces on Monday. If we hadn't already made plans for Monday, I'd try to drag Mike back. Oh well, I got a taste. And what a sweet taste it was!

Pipe organ in Hallgrimskirka

For the afternoon we had planned on taking the ferry to Videy (pronounced Vithey) Island. It's uninhabited but is supposed to have some nice scenery. Unfortunately, the very nice lady at the Tourist Info Office wasn't quite right in where we should catch the bus to the harbor. We waited in vain at the cold bus stop for over 1/2 hour waiting for a bus that never came. Oh we'll, it had started to cloud over anyways. Maybe later.

Plan B. Since the weather wasn't as pretty as it had been earlier we decided to check out one of the museums. We finally figured out the bus system (thanks to a kind bus driver willing to practice his high school English) and made it to the Saga museum. This museum has very well done wax figures portraying various episodes in Icelandic history. The museum itself is a little cheesy and overpriced but that's ok. The building that houses the museum also has a restaurant on the top floor with panoramic views of the city. It was windy up there, but the scenery was worth it!

Diorama at the Saga Museum

We're ending the day at the hotel which has a happy hour. Decently priced Viking beer. A good way to end a very long day. Tomorrow, we're taking one of our tours - The Golden Circle which includes lots of cool sites. Cross your fingers for good weather!

Posted by Jengt 11:52 Archived in Iceland Tagged church vikings iceland pipe_organ Comments (0)

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