It was time to meet up with my brothers, Bren and Johnny who had both flown out to meet us from Dubai and Dublin respectively for a few days. It was great to see them both – a mini holiday within our holiday – and Tbilisi had enough to entertain us all for a good few days.
On the first day we decided to head up to Mshketa which is the Religious capital of Georgia. After negotiating with the friendly neighbours about a driver we decided to join a tour company in order to get an English guide. So I took on booking duties and, in standard Paddy fashion, I managed to click the wrong tour on the company website…. This meant we ended up with a ‘bonus’ open top bus tour of Tbilisi as well as our Mshketa trip.
It was nice for Bren and Johnny to get out of the city to see some Georgian countryside and appreciate all The Lada Rivas on the road. It brought us back to our childhood when someone on our street had one and was mercilessly teased for it.
Back in the city we enjoyed food and a few beers, becoming regulars in the trendy Generator bar where we drowned our sorrows after the US election. Much time was spent discussing this disaster – 2016 the year we left the world alone and it decided to implode in our absence!
The second day highlight was our trip to see Swan Lake in the National Opera and Ballet theatre. The building itself was spectacular, quite new but done in a classical fashion. Of us three Cronins only Bren had been to a ballet and it was a modern ballet where he was ‘shushed’ for laughing at a ‘serious’ snake impression 🙂 Could we step up to the cultural plate and appreciate Swan Lake? We certainly think we did! It is the Classic ballet with white tutus and lots of familiar songs. The dancing, in particular the prima ballerina, was amazing. Annie and I rarely wear anything but our lycra and baggy, oil stained travelling trousers now so it was nice to spruce up for the occasion. I even wore a tie.
What was also interesting was the relaxed atmosphere and the various ages of the crowd. There was quite a bit of clapping, many a ‘Bravo!’ and even some talking especially during the overture and musical interludes. Because the tickets were so cheap, £12 for prime seats, there were lots of kids present and at the interval Annie said the girls toilet was full of young girls pretending to be swans, pirouetting in the mirror.
We continued our tourist route of Tbilisi on day 3 with a trip up the cable car to the statue of the Mother of Kartlis who symbolises the Georgian national character; one hand holding out a bowl of wine for friends and the other a sword for enemies. It has spectacular views over the city and vast botanical gardens. That evening was more Georgian cuisine and a sampling of local jazz which seems to be very popular in lots of pubs and bars around town.
Bren headed off home to Dubai on Thursday (but not before he’d had a go on the tandem) and the three of us who were left took the funicular (one of the steepest in the word) up to the hill overlooking the city and checked out the Museum of Georgia which had a particularly interesting exhibition on Russian soviet rule which suppressed the Georgian people up to independence in 1990.
Johnny headed off Friday night in the early hours leaving us back on our own but having had a great time with the guys catching the sights and rounding off most days with well deserved beers…
With the guys gone we spent Saturday visiting the bus station, bike shop and getting our new schwalbe marathon-plus tyres on the bike ready to get back on the road. We’re looking forward to seeing the Mediterranean coast… It will be our first sight of the sea since Cambodia 9 months ago. Not normal behaviour for a sailor like me…
We arrived into Tbilisi and the first thing we noticed was how warm it was in comparison to most of Armenia. This was good because we had five days to kill before Paddy’s brothers arrived for a few days.
With the promise of a string of sunny days ahead we agreed it would be good to get out on the bike and explore some of rural Georgia. Depending on the weather, it may be the one chance we get to do some cycling in the whole of the country… In the end we chose a 250km loop which would take us initially north east to Telavi and then west to Tianeti. Here is the profile of the cycle:
It would be a leisurely cycle with us only needing to cover 50km a day. We were lucky to be staying with Murat a Turkish Warm Showers host who is seeing out the winter here before continuing his journey south. It was cool staying with Murat, he was a really nice guy who likes to make social statements through live protest art; such as sitting in front of large advertising screens eating popcorn for hours and organising group candlelit dinners on pedestrian crossings. It was really interesting talking to him about the current situation in Turkey especially as it is our next stop after Georgia.
The next morning we set off and it took us a long time to find our way out of Tbilisi. Our first impression is that it is a city made for cars not pedestrians and certainly not for bikes! Even the smaller street roads still have 4 or 5 lanes and there are very few crossings and no taxi or bus lanes. Consequently the city has very high pollution levels. Other than the traffic the city seems really really nice with lots of new architectural projects which have been tastefully mixed in with the neoclassical style boulevards and charming old city which is full of wooden balconies and cobbled streets. It kind of reminds me a bit of London in this way.
We had an unpleasant hour on a busy dual carriageway for an hour but once we had turned off up to Telavi the cycle was much nicer although a killer headwind developed later in the day. We managed to shelter in a secluded wood that night and lit a good fire to stay warm.
The next day was spent getting over the first climb. It was a really lovely cycle through a number of villages where lots of makeshift stalls were set up selling wild mushrooms and nuts and fruit from the surrounding orchards.
Almost all the trees are covered in huge bunches of mistletoe which made us feel very Christmassy!
After a fast chilly 15km descent we pulled into a roadside restaurant which had a big outdoor picnic area. We asked if we could camp there and set up the tent while we waited for our big feast of traditional Gerogian food to arrive.
The next day we spent leisurely cycling down into the Alazani basin visiting a couple of 10th century churches on our way. The snow capped Caucusus came into view and the weather was a roasting 19 degrees! It was a really lovely day of cycling through golden forests and small villages. We found a Stella camping spot that evening.
The next day we left the paved road behind us as we climbed up over the second major climb of the loop. It was a lovely climb (not too steep) but the road was a little bumpy and muddy in places so it was quite slow going. We weren’t in any rush though and on the way up we stopped to walk up to a remote 10th century castle ruin and church. Again we had great weather all day.
We rolled into Tianeti and decided to get a room in the only hotel in the town. The owner Giorgi and his lovely wife Eteri invited us to sit in front of the wood burner in their village store where they plied us with bread, cheese, tea and cha cha – Georgian vodka like liquor. Hilariously, Giorgi called up his mate who lived down the road as he had spent 14 years living in Cork city so we also had a nice chat with him.
Our last day was overcast and a little misty but we had an easy 15km climb before a very long descent back to Tbilisi and the asphalt soon returned. Apart from a back wheel puncture on the way down it was a very easy day. On the way into the city a mountain biker cycled up behind us and enjoyed cycling in our slipstream for 20 minutes before pulling in to chat. He and his friends who were a few km behind had been out for a Sunday ride and so we ended up going for dinner with them which was really nice.