Navigating The Old City: Mtskheta, Georgia

Navigating The Old City: Mtskheta, Georgia

After a weekend of being spoiled by having my own personal Tbilisi tour guide, it was time for me to explore Georgia on my own. Gela recommended I see Mtskheta, the ancient capital of Georgia, just 20 kilometers outside the modern city center. He flagged me down a cheap cab, instructed the driver to drop me off at the bus station and wished me luck. When the bus dropped me off at a semi-circular turn-around where mini-buses, cabs and personal vehicles were playing an extra-dangerous-version-of-Traffic-Jam, I realized I needed his well wishes. This area wasn’t just a bus station- it was a crossroads of everything coming together at an accelerated city pace: a marketplace of fruit vendors, animal killers (well, meat sellers), flea market of household supplies, a playground for children in addition to the haphazard collection of vehicles. I walked around with a paper that read “Mtskheta”, looking for someone to help me navigate the cryptic Georgian script that might be written on a piece of paper and taped to a bus window… if you’re lucky. Eventually, someone pointed me to an unlabelled ticket window behind a pharmacy, I handed the lady a 1 lari coin and hopped on an (also unlabelled) minibus, hoping that it would take me to the right place because she didn’t really speak English and there was no obvious schedule. Fortunately, I was one of the last people needed to fill the bus so moments later, we lurched off into the agricultural lands surrounding the capital.

Mtskheta Old Town and Cathedral

Mtskheta Old Town and Cathedral

After 30-40 minutes, the bus reached its final stop and the driver urged me to get off at another semi-circular turn around, this one much more non-descript and less crazy than the previous. I spotted two men with a guidebook and flocked to them like a moth to a flame. It turns out that these two older gentlemen were from Poland, visiting their buddy at the Polish consulate. They were more than happy to allow me to tag along as long as I took occasional photos for them (and with them) and nodded and smiled when they launched into huge political conversations about Al Gore and Hilary Clinton running for president. One of the pair lived in Texas for a couple years, loved the fact that I was from a conservative state (North Carolina) and couldn’t wait to discuss the latest Republican victories. Unfortunately, I was ill-suited to contribute anything substantial to this conversation but he was so enthusiastic that my occasional nods and smiles tended to appease him.

My Polish friends, the Saint, random villagers and I at St. Nino

My Polish friends, the Saint, random villagers and I at St. Nino

St. Nino Church
Following his guidebook, he led us to the first stop: St. Nino church. I already forget the story behind this particular place except that people who lived close by tended to wear black, even if they weren’t actual nuns or monks and there was no funeral to attend. This depressing clothing didn’t seem to be a town-wide fashion trend but one woman explained that it was traditional for the area on a daily basis. On our way out, we found an ancient bearded man in red velvet with an imposing staff, surrounded by a crowd of villagers. One (who spoke Russian) communicated to my Polish translators that he was a very special saint and that we were lucky to meet him. We nodded admiringly. However, this saint man seemed to be more excited about meeting us and started to pose for pictures. We appeased him with a few photos then moved on.

The Life-Giving Pillar at Swetitskhoveli Cathedral

The Life-Giving Pillar at Swetitskhoveli Cathedral

Up until this point, Mtskheta seemed to be an unremarkable, rather ordinary town and we weren’t sure why it earned the UNESCO seal of approval but it became clear as we rounded the bend and approached Svititskhovelli Cathedral. With support from the United States and several other countries, they renovated the cobblestone streets and filled the curvy streets with small country cottages. They remodeled the buildings so recently and pristinely, the area has an artificial Disney-World-esque but it’s definitely a cute and relaxing place to hang out. The village surrounds the mammoth Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (another UNESCO site), which has been the burial site for Georgian kings for centuries. The church was constructed way back in the 4th century, supposedly over the grave where Christ’s shirt was buried. Supposedly, the pillar placed over this site, while building the church, levitated in the air until St. Nino commanded it to return to earth. To this day, people go on pilgrimages to see this “life-giving pillar” that has cured diseases, and allegedly illuminated light and radiated fragrances over the years.

View from Jevi Monastery

View of local rivers and farmland from Jevi Monastery

Great Views From Javi Monastery

Our final major (UNESCO) stop in the town was Javi monastery, overlooking the estuary of two local rivers. The panoramic view of the city and surrounding farmland was quite impressive. The church itself was a little anticlimactic but very typical for Georgian churches- relatively plain and dark inside. The architecture of this building is famous because it began as a small cross then a larger cathedral was built around the pedestal of the older, small cross. This architectural style is common around Georgia but supposedly, this is the oldest and most complete example.

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As we rode back down, my Polish friend shared his journal full of notes throughout his trip. He kept a running tally of how many people replied to his questions in English and Russian, percentages he claimed to be 70 and 30 percent respectively. You’re supposed to try to speak to the older people in Russian (it would be helpful if I knew Russian…) and try English with the younger generation (Gela advised me that girls tend to have better English). However, even with these tips, I rarely succeeded at finding English speakers amongst random people on the street. However, sometimes life is more entertaining that way as you’ll read in my next post. Overall, Mtskheta is a cheap and worthwhile day trip (or half day trip) from Tbilisi and a good test of your Georgian navigation abilities!

Song of the Moment: Best of Nino Katamadze (Georgian Jazz… incredible!)

If YOU want to go to Mtskheta: You can take the metro to Didube stop, past the McDonalds (my Tbilisi friend says there’s always a metro stop by the McDonalds), walk through the market to where the buses gather and try to find someone who can direct you to the ticket window behind the apothecary. Mini buses circulate every 20 minutes or so and the ride costs 1 lari each way (as opposed to a 20-lari cab ride). I recommend females bring a scarf to cover their heads for these three churches and wear clothes knee-length or longer. All the attractions are close together and free except for getting to Javi.  You can get a taxi from near the Cathedral and the driver will drive you up there, wait and take you back down for approximately 15 lari round-trip (it’s even cheaper if you make friends!).

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