Sunday, November 29, 2009

Top Yacht: The News - America's Cup Update

INT: Top Yacht studio, usual three presenters, studio audience, various boats hanging behind etc

Clarkson: More news - an update on the America's Cup

Audience groans, May and Hammond shake their heads in disbelief and Clarkson holds up a piece of paper

Clarkson: The latest press release. I'm losing the will to live let alone read it

May: Does it mention lawyers?

Clarkson (looking at paper): Yes

Hammon: Does it mention any sailing?

Clarkson: No - so its clearly of no interest

He scrumples it up into a ball and throws at the audience.

Clarkson: This is beyond a joke, its... what's the word?

May: Foolish?

Clarkson: No, worse than that

Hammond: Stupid?

Clarkson: No, worse than that!

May: What's worse than foolish and stupid?

Hammond: Us!

Audience laughs and claps

Clarkson: Yes - even we couldn't [beep] up the America's Cup like this. I mean really how hard could it be to come up with an idea? When it comes to that, what was wrong with the last one?

Hammond: Nothing, great racing, good winds, excellent really

May: ...and Valencia - excellent food and wine!

Clarkson: Yes, May, that's what's important on a program called Top Yacht! But he's right, you're right, why not just do it again, every four years.

Hammond: Plus talk to the Vendee Globe and Volvo lot to make sure each are every four years but not the same year.

Clarkson: Yes! So we'd have the America's Cup, the Volvo, the Vendee, and then what for the last year?

May: The Olympics of course

Clarkson and Hammond: Yes!

Clarkson: So there you are, if we three bunch of ambitious but crap sailors can sort out the mess there really is no excuse.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Top Yacht: The News - Man Overboard!

Top Yacht logo & post advert theme

INT: Top Yacht studio, usual three presenters, studio audience, various boats hanging behind etc

Clarkson: Welcome back! We'll catch up on the Top Yacht Less is More Trans-Atlantic Laser Challenge later in the show but first its the news.

May: And we kick off with a sobering video from the Clipper Round the World race. Arthur Bowers was racing on Humber and Hull....

Hammond: You mean Hull and Humber!

May: Do I?

Hammond: Yes.

May: Ok, well anyhow Arthur Bowers was racing in the Clipper Round the World Race on Hull and Humber when he got washed overboard in the South Atlantic during a storm.

Clarkson: Now I'm not one for these health and safety wallies but when it comes to clipping on during a storm this is a definitely no brainer. All I can say is do watch this video and see what happens when man overboard is not a drill.

Click here for the video.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Top Yacht - The Less is More Challenge

Top Yacht logo & post advert theme

INT: Top Yacht studio, usual three presenters, studio audience, various boats hanging behind etc

Clarkson: We're back! Yes it's time for a new series of Top Yacht!

Audience cheers!

Clarkson (waving in his hand a piece of paper): And we start with a letter from a viewer, an American - apparently they do a bit of sailing over there - who calls himself Tillerman. And he asks why do we muck around in big boats rather than the wonderful Laser? Haven't we ever heard of the concept that less is more?

Camera viewpoint lowers so Clarkson at 6 foot 6 inches towers above the viewer.

Clarkson: This is clearly complete bollocks. And I mean a Laser, the designers obviously hadn't realised that people grow up

May: And I agreed - after all what good is a boat that's too small for a kettle to make a nice cup of tea! So if it had been up to us the letter would have been crumpled up into a ball so we could play a quick game of football.

Hammond: But luckily it wasn't opened by these two oversized morons but by me! I've always liked the Laser as its clearly the right size and terrific fun to sail. But how to show these two sceptics there is more to it than meets the eye? So I had this idea, a challenge: starting, say, from Putney London, how far could we sail a Laser?

Clarkson: So what do we think? From Putney how far could we sail a Laser?

Voice from the audience: Putney!

Clarkson: Oh very funny! Ok, hands up all those that think we could get to Tower Bridge?

Most of the audience put their hands up.

May: Slightly worried that not everyone thinks we could even sail a Laser from Putney to Tower Bridge!

Audience sniggers.

Clarkson: Ok, how about a bit further, say Greenwich, that's 11 nautical miles?

Some of the audience put hands down.

May: What about the Tilbury Docks, that's nearly thirty nautical miles and pretty much out to sea?

All of the audience now have put their hands down.

The three look at each other smirking.

Clarkson: Go on, you tell them.

Hammond: Well I decided that in true Top Yacht tradition we should be really ambitious and suggested New York.

Gasps, a few laughs, then silence from the audience.

May: You might think he's joking, because we certainly did, but then he explained.

Hammond: The key bit was that I asked how far we could sail the Laser - we, us three. If we took it in turns and had something a bit like a watch system, could we together sail this little boat across the wide Atlantic?

Clarkson: Of course at this point the health and safety idiots got involved and this being the BBC we couldn't just set them on fire or something and ignore all that stupid stuff about the dangers of sailing a one person dinghy in a gale at night.

May: To keep them happy, as well as a watch system we were allowed to go to the nearest land and pull the Laser up the beach as long as we launched at the same point.

Clarkson: Then there was the issue that we of course are very busy people with supermarkets to open, adverts to do voice overs for, that sort of thing. So for most of the actual sailing we'd need stand-ins to take the place of us three.

May: And the three we got were Aqua Stig, Ben Ainslie and Anna Tunnicliffe, as they sort of know a thing or two about Lasers. But the key offshore legs would be up to us.

Hammond: So there you, the Top Yacht sail a Laser across the Atlantic challenge!

Advert break. Are they mad? Could you sail a Laser across the Atlantic? Could those three? Keep watching to find out the answer....

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Love and Sailing - what happened next?

In yesterday's post on the less than romantic voyage of Alan and Cleo, Adam, who appropriately blogged on the start of this year's ARC, asked whether there is a part 2?

Well that is a good question, far too good for just me, so what do you think happened next?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Love and Sailing

Alan sat at the navigation table, wondering what he should do. Absent mindedly he twirled a winch handle round and round like a football rattle. Suddenly it reminded him of his youth when his Dad took him to watch Leeds United play in some half remembered northern darby: guiltily he stopped.

Cleo came down the companion way to join Alan in the main cabin. “Time for a drink?” she asked.

He nodded and watched as Cleo mixed two G&Ts. He seemed loss for words, unsure what to say to his wife of 18 years.

In recent years he seemed to know her less and less. He had been distracted by his business which had taken all his time as it had grown and expanded until a major competitor decided it was cheaper to buy him out than battle over margins. That deal had taken time too, late nights with lawyers and accountants, then handling the hand-over and tying up those final loose ends.

This was meant to be his reward – and hers. After all that grind, after seeing the kids head off to university, to live the dream and sail off into the sunset. So he bought a yacht called My Fair Lady and talked her into leaving their plush Surrey home for the cramped quarters and hard slog of a double handed yacht.

“Do it for us” he had argued “Give it a chance – give us a chance. Be adventurous for once”.

It was probably the last little dig that had done it. He suspected she couldn’t face being considered less adventurous than him. He’d always felt a bit second rate to her and her family: they were all professionals, lawyers and academics, while his business – though successful – involved equipment hire to construction companies. They met with politicians and journalists, doers and makers, while he met with builders.

So here they now were, starting off on the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, the ARC: three thousand miles of blue water with the warmth of the Caribbean ahead, and just each others company for the next three weeks.

“What are you doing down here?” she asked “Its lovely up on deck with the sun just about to set”.

What was he doing? Was he hiding from her? Frozen for a moment he then thought of something.

“Wanted to listen into the radio net” he said “They often have a get together this time of day”.

He turned on the SSB radio and they started to listen in.

“Howdy sport” said an Australian voice “How’s life on X-Change?”

Alan started. “Wasn't X-Change on the berth next to ours?” he asked.

He could picture them clearly. The skipper had been an ex-city type called Hugo who had insisted their two boats crews should have a dinner together and then patronised Alan for two hours before he’d managed to escape back to the boat on the excuse that he had to check the lightening conductor was properly earthed.

“I’m in the dog house” replied another Aussie voice “Skipper’s not forgiven me for walking in on him shagging that Cleo from My Fair Lady”.

Alan snapped the radio off. His inside tightened as they got colder and colder and then his stomach churned acid. His hands clenched tight around each end of the winch handle and he found his teeth were grinding as out of control cheek muscles pulled his face into a grimace.

He finally looked up at Cleo. He could see that her hands, wrapped around the drinks glass, were shaking. Her face had gone paper white that made her lipstick appear to be floating above her face. Her eyes were locked on his, and looking at them he felt that for once he could actually see her, not the mask she normally wore.

Then the mask snapped back and her chin rose slightly.

“Well” she said “This is awkward”.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The "Love and Sailing" non post

Ah, the romance of sailing!

Anchoring in some isolated coral atoll where there are no lights apart from the fireflies ashore, chink of champagne on ice, bbq on the beach, stars overhead, warm water, skinny dipping and comfy bunks for just you and your loved one....

Nope, never happened, sorry Tillerman.

Now of course there is the tale of [deleted] which was very amusing and how could I forget about when [deleted] and [deleted] which was rather steamy..... but that's some one else story, and they might not be too pleased to have it blogged.

So alas guys it's not going to happen - will just have to blog something posted earlier for what I think was a Carol Anne inspired group writing exercise.

Recycling may not be romantic but it is not just environmentally friendly but also work overload friendly!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Not an apology

Our ex supreme leader, Tony Blair, had this way of giving an apology that was nothing of the sort. Being an ex-lawyer it would sometimes take some time to decode the layers of waffle to work out that what he really was sorry about was that no one realised that he, as the supreme leader, was right.

But I'm not even going to try to match TB's non apologies and just say I am really glad not to have been on the water this weekend.

It was really really wet, really really cold and really really windy. On Sunday it went from F4 to an estimated F8 in a couple of minutes together with horizontal rain that reduced visibility to 100m or so.

Those that signed up for the Hamble Winter Series (I mean, honestly, doesn't that name tell you everything you need to know) reported back:

"You get up at a most unsensible hour to sprint down for the Hamble Winter Series, only to get there and be told at 7.20am "all racing is cancelled". You look at the weather and think how the dickens could they not see this coming and cancel it the night before"

Instead on Saturday I went to one niece's birthday party and then on Sunday to another for "the twins" spreading a cloud of presents behind me like a good uncle should.

Forget wet and dry suits, this is winter and I don't want to go out there!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

One hundred thousand martyrs and a blessing

I followed the icon and attending monks from the Georgian Orthodox church down towards the river. First they were joined by another procession and then all were submerged into the huge crowd waiting on the Metekhi Bridge.

This was clearly a major event, but what? Again language was a barrier to comprehension so all I could do was soak up the atmosphere and relish the experience.

One side of the bridge was reserved for a line of dignatories, and demarked with an array of banners, flags, icons and crosses. They made an impressive sight against the backdrop of some of the top sights of Tbilisi.

The bridge is at the heart of old town: on one side of the river was the Metekhi Church and statue of King Vakhtang Georgasali, while on the hill above the other were the Narikala Fortress and Church of St Nicholas (above).

The icon I had followed passed along the line of banners to the square just on the left bank of the river where there was the mass of the crowd and a marquee (below).

There were TV cameras on a crane above the crowd and others posted at strategic places such as below the statue of King Vakhtang Gorgasali (see more pictures here).

The crowd were very patient and after about half an hour a service began, led by none other than the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia Illia II himself.

To flash forward to what Google told me later, this was an open air service to commemorate the One Hundred Thousand Martyrs. It relates back to 1227 when Sultan Jalal al-Din of Khwarazm and his army of attacked Georgia where he drove the inhabitants onto the bridge and ordered them to walk and spit on their holy icons.

One hundred thousand of them refused and were beheaded, with their remains being thrown into the river below! As I'd noticed before, in Georgia martyrdom and faith seems inextricably linked together.

The service included many moments of the beautiful Georgian plain chants from several choirs, prayers, responses and readings. The Patriarch gave part of the service in the marquee but then led a procession with icons and senior clerics to the bridge itself.

It was quite hard to see what was going on, though got this glimpse of the Patriarch. You have to look closely but he is stepping down from the marquee:

The crowd around me had bunches of flowers and candles which they kept lit through out the service. This was not simple, for despite it being a lovely evening there was a bit of a breeze and one lady next to me seem to use up all her matches and had to get her candle re-lit by the help of others.

It was very packed and at one point another of the ladies shawls caught fire! It was quickly put out by the hands of those around her.

At the end the soldiers keeping us back from the line of barriers melted away and their was a scrum to the bridge. Here the congregation threw their flowers into the river to commemorate those martyrs way back in the 13th Century.

In the midst of all this pushing and shoving one of the senior clerics made his way back towards the square. The mass of people parted in front of him, a line of empty space that went just passed me.

As he walked along this line he placed his hands on the congregation and blessed each one, including me.

It and the service were both very moving experiences.

I left the bridge and joined the throng of good people of Tbilisi returning back to the city.

It was the end of my time in Georgia, and the memory card in my camera was a full as my heart.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Quest - part 2

On the last day in Tbilisi I was going to head up the funicular railway to the Mtatsminda Park to get the view over the city, but on arrival at the station at the base it was clearly shut for winter.

Plan B was to try again to see the grapevine cross of St Nina, so instead went on the quest over to the Sioni Cathedral.

But on arrival while there seem to be a flock of priests (if that is the right word) the gold doors into the alter were closed.

It was clearly not going to be the day to see the holy relic, and was thinking that maybe it was time to call it a day and go back to the hotel to pack.

Then I saw this procession walking through the nearby streets including an icon and several clerics, so decided to change the plans (again) and follow them to see what was up.....

Friday, November 20, 2009

A wedding at the Tbilisi Sioni Cathedral

After hearing that the cross of St Nino made from grapevine and bound by her own hair was to be found at the Tbilisi Sioni Cathedral, I tried not once but twice to try to see it.

It was almost like a quest to see this holy relic. And like with all quests it was the searching that mattered not the finding for both times I failed but was rewarded in a different way.

The first time it was by being present at an Eastern Orthodox wedding. Well, to be accurate it was three weddings for there were a trinity of couples there.

Of course at first I had no idea what was going on, and there didn't seem to be any exclusivity in use of the cathedral. There remained the usual flow of mostly elderly women who'd come up to their chosen icon for a prayer and reverential kiss, or light a candle.

I hope the people there don't mind these photos - in general I try not to post picture of people without their permission.

So the first picture above shows the three couples with the candle that is Declaration of Intent and Lighting of Candles (all info from Wikipedia which of course was the first port of call back in the hotel).

After that there was the crowning:

According to Wikipedia:

After prayers are offered on their behalf, the groom and bride are crowned by the priest "In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit". These crowns have two meanings. First, they reveal that the man and woman, in their union with Christ, participate in His Kingship. Second, as in the ancient Church, crowns are a symbol of martyrdom.

Hmm... there it goes again, Georgia and martyrdom.

Anyhow then there was the Epistle, the Gospel, the Common Cup (i.e. wine) and then the Dance of Isaiah in which all three couples process around three times to reflect the Trinity:

Then there was the removal of the crowns and greeting of the couples.

Finally they went outside where there was a final stage in the ceremony that Wikipedia didn't mention but I think you can guess what's happening here:

For those that haven't worked it out, look at what is just to the right of the street light in the top left of the picture!

Scoop from our source in the Caucasus!

As a leading blog this writer is often approached by those with a story that needs a wider audience. All too often alas this involves the supply of suspiciously cheap pharmaceuticals from Canada.

But sometimes there's a hot tip, a story that needs to be revealed, and we are willing to break the unpleasant truth to the world - to campaign for what is right and fight what is wrong.

According to a source which contacted the blog recently but who wishes to remain anonymous, there are plans to develop the idylic surroundings around the holy Tsminda Sameba Church with apartments!

This project is clearly the work of corrupt officials supported by the Russian Mafia and we must at all costs make sure they don't find out the name of our contact.

Fortunately I on principle would never reveal whether he came from East or West Coast America, let alone whether he Bee a blogger, and certainly not hint about docks and letters somewhere between N and P.

Keep sending in those scoops - while you still can!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Travel Planning and Travel Agencies

my2fish asked how I was able to find all these places, which is a good question.

I've done a bit of travelling on business and the key is preparation: find out before had what it is you want to do and then work out how to get to them.

In this case it was a copy of the Lonely Planet guide to Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan that was the starting point. Its a bit out of date but was able to get a list of top things to see.

How to get to them was harder. My uncle had a motorbike and knew Russian. Having only English and no transport it was clear that the best approach was to get a local agent. This is more expensive but for someone time poor and otherwise stuck it was by far the best way forward.

A local UK travel agent put me in touch with Caucasus Travel and they certainly came up trumps. No hesitation in recommending them.

But getting lucky helps: having such superb weather was exceptional, particularly for a time of year when sites are mostly empty of tourists.

Its also a good idea to following your hunches and not having too fixed a plan - as will explain in the next couple of posts.

Shopping on the Dry Bridge Market

After the spiritual highs of two days of monasteries and churches it was time for a bit of more worldly excitements, in this case shopping at the Dry Bridge Market.

This is an area of central Tbilisi when anyone (it appears) can turn up and lay out their wares and sell pretty much anything.

The standard tourist fares are silver drinking goblets out of cow horns and long ornate silver daggers, neither of which was tempted by. Nor was I tempted by the rather bizarre art, funny hats, or glass tea cups that visitors are meant to purchased.

Some items would have been hard to bring back to the UK - such as a complete bear skin or a stuffed baby bear. Then there was a wide array of CDs and DVDs, some poor quality, others dubious morality, but no doubt all illegal.

There was an area dedicated to electrical components where you could stock up with old fashioned valves. The saddest item was a short strip of solder - value probably a few pennies.

But what I did find interesting and indeed tempting were the wide array of Soviet era emblems, badges and medals. In a way it was tragic you could pick up old WW2 medals from epic and bloody battles such as Stalingrad from the side of streets in a country that strongly rejected Russian rule.

Others seemed less loaded with history, so let the inner space cadet loose for a short while and wondered around saying sputnik and cosmos and ended up with a handful of Soviet era space badges which now must find a place to store.

For England and Georgia!

One of the strange things about travelling in Georgia was seeing flags that were almost but not quite the same as England, namely white with a red cross.

For the two countries have a patron saint in common, namely St. George, here slaying the inevitable dragon high above Tbilisi's Freedom Square - or Tavisuplebis moedani for those with knowledge of Georgian.

For those with Soviet era memories it was previously known as Lenin Square and during those times it was the bearded Russian not the Palestinian errant knight at the top of the pillar.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The tragedy of Davit Gareja

After venturing into the snow and ice of the high mountains the next day went into the semi-desert wilderness, this time to see the monasteries in the Davit Gareja site on the border with Azerbaijan.

The earliest of these date back to the 6th century when Davit (or David) Gareja and others returned from Palestine to spread Christianity in Georgia, with the monasteries at this site their base.

The life was if anything even harder than for those in the freezing churches perched upon mountain tops. The area is incredibly dry and in summer temperatures are in the 40 - 50 degree C range. The monks living spaces were spartan, being caves they cut themselves into the sandstone.

Here they would lead a frugal life often fasting for days surviving just on the limited rain water they would collect in cisterns cut, like almost everything here, out of the rock.

There are actually a number of monasteries dotted over the landscape of which the two most commonly visited are Lavra (above, where you can see Davit's cave) and then if you climb the hill behind and descend the other side you'll get to Udabno with staggering views over the plains to the border with Azerbaijan:

You can see the path snaking away just below the cliffs at the top of the hill side, and to reach the caves you then had to scramble up over the rocks.

This time there were just the two of us, my guide and me, as the driver stayed at the base of the hill with a solitary monk. There were again no other people, but we were joined by a dog. He was known to my guide and seemed happy to follow us on the trail, jumping from rock to rock with ease.

It was a grand site, but also tragically sad. Partly this is because of the history: as in much of Georgian history it involves sacrifice, invasions, death and martyrdom. For example the complex was sacked in 1615 by the Persian Shah Abbas and all 6,000 monks killed. The story is that two ran away but then saw the souls of the 5,998 ascending to heaven as silvery clouds and so returned to join them.

Alas my 21st century response was, if that was the case how do we know this story? Was there a third who just kept running?

A similar tale was told the previous day in that some holy relics and gold were hidden in the hills above the Tsminda Sameba church by two Georgian soldiers who then killed themselves to keep the location secret - again, how do we know?

The other tragedy is the state of decay of this historic site. Being sandstone the caves have in many places collapsed and to be honest the climb up to then would have a health and safety worry bag get out their clipboard and go "no, no, no".

And then the fantastic frescos are being washed away one by one. Take this lovely one below: the smear through the centre is a new feature due to recent rain and the guide could remember when it wasn't there:

This sort of water damage is continuing all the time and there seems to be no resources to halt it. Maybe in a few years it won't be there at all.

The picture by the way tells two stories. The one to the right shows the deer that saved the monks when they were without food and water by being tame enough to be milked.

The one on the right shows a dragon that was terrorising the deer and promised to leave if Davit would let it reach the river in peace. Davit agreed but before it reached there a bolt of lightening killed it and an angel told Davit it was an evil that would have destroyed the world if it had reached the river.

My guide and I climbed our way to the top of the hill where we could look out over this amazing site and eat our pack lunch. The dog sat a few metres off and chewed discarded sandwiches, taking out the ham and leaving the bread, damp with its saliva.

Above we saw half a dozen eagles spiral round and round in a thermal.

It was another good moment to savour, before descending back to the waiting 4x4.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Tsminda Sameba Church

The Georgian Military Highway was spectacular, the Ananuri fortress and church stunningly beautiful, however the Tsminda Sameba Church, well.... but first to describe it.

Near the closed border with Russia is the town of Kazbegi. It is famous in its own right for being the home of one of Georgia's greatest writers Alexander Kazbegi (yes, he took his name from this town) and while at a height of 1,750m, it sits deep in the valley between snow capped mountains.

Above it on a peak is the iconic Tsminda Sameba Church:

Above even it looms the 5,047m high extinct volcano that is Mount Kazbek:

On most days either the church or mountain will be hidden by clouds but I was unbelievably lucky in that the sky was nearly cloud free - my guide had never seen it so clear.

The proper way to approach it is by foot to give the setting the respect it deserves and appreciate the work required to build it. Alas given all the other sights to see that day we had to trust a 4 wheel drive SUV to clamber up the windy track to the top.

Apparently the Soviets installed a cable car, an act of defilement which was promptly and quite rightly dismantled by the people of Kazbegi.

The church is one of the symbols of Georgia, the land and its people. Built from deep faith in their Eastern Orthodox church it is at one with the landscape.

In summer it is a centre for tourists, but that afternoon we were the only visitors. There was just me, my guide, our driver, and one priest keeping watch in the church.

Here life must have been - and indeed still be - hard, with deep biting cold in winter, but with rewards too.

Time to go? asked my guide, keen to get back to Tbilisi and knowing the long, hard road back. I asked for time to savour this amazing place.

It was a truly magical moment.

From the church you could look around at the ring of mountains around the horizon. 1,500 feet below was Kazbegi and in the clear air every feature could be seen sharply.

There was a peaceful quiet in which could faintly hear the roar of the river in the valley far below.

Above was the magnificence of Mount Kazbek, gleaming white against a blue skyline.

It made one feel as if above the world and yet still insignificant.

We got talking to the priest, who turned out to know some English from some time living in London, and there was a surreal moment when the discussion turned to the names of the tube stations in Putney.

Yes, he said, life here is hard. In September there was a heavy snow fall and for several days there was no electricity or gas, and we lived as in medieval times.

The sky at night must be amazing I said.

Yes he said, I like to come out here at 6 am before the sun has risen when the stars are still out, it is......

He seemed lost for words, but I could imagine it.

I can't find the words either, so you will have to imagine it too.

The Ananuri Fortress and Church

As mentioned in the previous blog entry, the Georgian Military Highway was an ancient trading route, and control of which could bring great riches.

During medieval times a large chunk of it was controlled by the dukes of Avagri and it appears they operated as a sort of reverse Robin Hood, taking from the poor (the travellers) to give to the rich (themselves).

There was naturally resentment (from the peasants) and envy (from other dukes) about this that led to many a battle, until they were over-thrown in the 18th century.

Since then the valley has been turned into a very picturesque reservoir:

The castle of the dukes of Aragvi at Ananuri remains, or at least parts of it, together with two churches both from the 17th century:

It was stunningly beautiful, and so quiet we could hear the cowbells from somewhere out in the valley. My guide thought the bells might be to scare off the wolves, but must admit at this point I said I doubted that a hungry wolf would be that deterred and she agreed, saying it was probably so that the farmer could find his animals.

There was no one there apart from a couple of optimistic old ladies with souvenir stands by the entrance. Indeed the buildings were all locked up until one of them went off to find the key.

It was so beautiful, I wondered to the guide, why was the valley not sprinkled with houses built to soak up the view. Oh, she says, we have so many beautiful places in Georgia.

This is certainly one of them.

Up the Georgian Military Highway

One of the bits of advice my uncle gave me if I was to visit Georgia was to travel the Georgian Military Highway.

The name made me think it was new, as in the last one hundred years, maybe build during the Soviet era to allow tank divisions to roll south.

But the reality is it is a very old trading route and for thousands of years traders have made their way along it. My guide described it as part of the silk route, but its orientation made me think it was more a fur route, with animal skins coming south and some of the wine for which Georgia is famous heading north.

The "Military" part of the name relates to the degree in which this valuable route has been fought over during the long centuries and also the route in which the Russians traditionally took when invading Georgia.

Currently this road is quiet, though it does skirt the border with South Ossetia, coming within a mile or two at its closest. Due to those troubles the border with Russia is sealed - which maybe just as well given the first Russian province is the equally troubled Chechnya.

The road does have some connections with Soviet era in that the highest parts of the road were only tarmacked during the times of their control. It must have been a tough battle, and even now the road is badly maintained:

It is not too bad up to the ski resorts of Gaudauri but gets very bumpy after that as it heads up to the Jvari pass. The name means cross and the pass itself is marked with with a simple monument at 2,385m:

There are other monuments on the roadside: these are for those that died making the road. Some were German prisoners of war during WW2 who must have felt very far from home in this remote and wild landscape:

After the pass the road winds down towards the dead end of the border and the handful of little towns that can be found in the midst of the mountains.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Jvari Church

Just got back to a London that is currently suffering storm force winds and battering rain. The landing at Heathrow was decidedly wobbly and wind speeds of 100 mph were measured earlier at The Needles.

Despite being many days behind in stories from my travels and some good posts planned the rest of the day involves coffee, jetlag, unpacking and ordering take-aways.

Will just post this picture of the lovely Jvari Church for now, with more coming tomorrow.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Mtskheta, the heart of Georgia

Just up river from Tbilisi is the spiritual heart of Georgia, the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in the old town of Mtskheta.

This was one of the earliest Christian churches in the world, founded in about 327 AD. The story is that a Jew from Mtskheta was in Jerusalem at the time of the crucification and returned with the robe. On his return his sister Sidonia took the robe from him and immediately died from the strength of her faith. Her grasp on the robe was so strong it had to be buried with her where it remains to this day under the Cathedral.

For a time Mtskheta was the capital of eastern Georgia until about the 5th Century AD when it was transferred to Tbilisi. But it remains important, a bit like Canterbury is the centre of the Church of England.

It certainly is a lovely building and contains these great frescos:

My guide told me all about this - she was very well informed despite her mispronunciation of invasion - but I can only remember a little. At the centre are the twelve apostles and unusually for a Christian symbolism also the zodiac. To the left is hell and to the right used to be heaven before it got erased sometime in the past.

The weather was as you can see wonderful but the great building almost empty on this, a mid week day in November. It felt very relaxed with the monk below seen cleaning the carpets.

On the sky above Mtskeheta, on one of those amazing, haunting positions that the Georgians seem so clever at placing their holy sites, is the Jvari Church. This is, if possible, even more sacred than the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral and was where St Nino erected a sacred wooden cross in the 4th century.

St Nino is the most venerated of Georgia's saints and is credited with the conversion of Georgia.

There are a number of stories of her early years from slave girl, to relation of St George, to daughter of a Roman General, but her defining symbol was the vine cross that she got from the Virgin Mary and then bound with her own hair.

The vine cross is kept in the Sioni Cathedral in Tbilisi but despite many attempts I never got to see it.

However as you can see from the photos had a very clear day to view both the Church and Cathedral. If you look carefully at the top picture you'll see it just has both in it.

Tbilisi, Capital of Georgia

This roughly patched together panorama shows Tbilisi from the Narikala Fortress that looms over the city. Most of the city, including the oldest parts, are on the left hand bank of the Mtkvari River.

However just over the bridge is the Metekhi Church which stands on a rocky outcrop overlooking a sharp bend in the river. Fortifications at this point were used to control the river, together with the castle on the hill:

And Tbilisi definitely needed defending as there have been wave after wave of invasions from Russia, Persia, Turkey, Arabs and Romans. My guide for the two tours I took out of the city said that there had been 40 odd invasions, which can well believe. Well I think she said 40, it might have been 14 given she had a distinct accent, but the bigger figure in this case sounds more plausible

Georgia has a very long history and in classical times there were two kingdoms called the Colchis in the west and the Kartli in the east and south. The Colchis were the land of the Golden Fleece that Jason and the Argonauts searched for. This story apparently has an element of truth, in that sheep's skins were used to pan for gold.

The Kartli were also known as known as Iberia which was the term my guide used, which confused me initially. She also kept saying things like "the Russian invention of Georgia was followed by the Persian invention of Georgia".

Eventually I twigged that one should mentally replace "invention" with "invasion" but by this point it had been said too many times to be able to politely correct the pronounciation so let it go.

Actually it was in a way quite appropriate because Georgian culture is a mix of all these different cultures, so in a way it was invented by all these invasions.

Alas a lot of the old town was burnt in one of the many sackings of the city but it has been re-built in wood with lots of lovely winding streets and over-hanging balconies:

My guide book compared it to the house of Miss Haversham in Dicken's Great Expectations, but to me it unfortunately reminded me of another building in another Dickens, namely the House of Clennams in Little Dorrit.

This building collapsed into a pile of dust at the end of the book and that has clearly happened more than once in Tbilisi. Many of the quaint buildings are at closer inspection in need of some repairs:

This city does not have the oil wealth of Baku and there is none of the frantic re-generation, though some reconstruction is evident.

There is also a sense of edge, with more police cars screetching by or stopping and men with machine guns (!) emerging. SUVs with blackened windows go rushing by and on the motorway on the way back from some monastories we passed a military convoy with trucks full of bombs (big ones).

As well as having a troubled ancient history, Georgia has had a troubled recent one too. The war in South Ossetia resulted in Russian tanks only 60 km from the capital. Previously there were civil wars and other regional troubles.

Despite good relations with the west they now know that in the end their three big neightbours of Russia, Turkey and Iran are the ones that matter.

But what is attractive about this country is how they are determined to enjoy the good life and carry on regardless. You go into a restaurant for a quick meal and by the end there is a band bashing out U2 and Beatles hits or a fiddler is playing Jewish music with couples dancing.

It has a more European feel that Baku, with good coffee bars that have free wifi such as Entree on Rustavelis gamzini and the nearby Prospero's Books which as you might guess is also a bookshop.

Its hard not to like these people and wish them well.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Hello Tbilisi

It's only a short flight from Baku to Tbilisi, a place that my uncle had recommended I visit if I was over this way. The photos in the guide book looked pretty amazing so a bit of Googling and credit card payments and here I am in the capital of another of the countries of the Caucasus, Georgia.

Actually I'm behind in posting as have been here a few days but will try to catch up soon - but not now as hungry!