Onto the final leg of my Great Hittite Trail tour. I took a coach from Erzurum's out-of-town bus station, which zig-zagged northwards through the Pontic and then the Lesser Caucasus Mountains, rolling along precipitous mountain roads and giving great views of inland lakes and soaring peaks. I had planned this leg of the journey as best as I could, but the advice online and in books was sketchy, at times contradictory., and faintly worrying!
""You will have to cross the Turkey-Georgia border on foot, and be prepared to haggle with the squadron of taxi and dolmus drivers on the other side. They will take dollars or sterling. You can't get a hold of Georgian Lari until you're inside the country""
I had images of me crawling through a hole in a chickenwire fence then scuttling across a dusty car park, ducking every so often to hide from border guards. In fact, the border crossing was first rate - just like an airport without the planes. I will admit I was a little disappointed after all my imaginings :)
A Dolmus into Batumi was an interesting experience. No seatbelts, 100+mph and 'take your life in your hands' overtaking on a single carriageway - yikes!
The Georgian countryside was markedly different to that on the Turkish side: on my right rose the verdant, tree-lined Caucasus range whose peaks were shrouded in cloud, and on my left was the coast, sun-washed and sweltering. In many places, it reminded me very much of the carribean landscape, with hillside homes standing proud of the woods here and there, pitched on stilts.
Upon entering Batumi and crawling through its traffic, I also noticed a rather unusual fashion amongst the men of the city: standing around on street corners with their t-shirts rolled up from the waist, right up to the armpits! Perhaps it was because Batumi was very hot and muggy. It was also very busy and from what I could detect on the way through, the air seemed to be quite polluted.
Fortunate then, that I was not stopping here. Near Batumi's central train station, I hopped off the dolmus and into another taxi which sped me at warp speed along the highway up the Black Sea coast through fresh country air and towards a quiet little place known as Ureki Beach. I had picked this place at random as a good 'downtime' stop for a few days. Ureki Beach sports black, magnetic sand, and the perceived healing qualities of the sand make it a very popular destination for those with health problems, including bone and cardiovascular diseases. I checked into a very pleasant beach shack there and - after weeks of fast-paced travel - began to wind down.
But why, I hear you ask, why Georgia? What has it to do with the ancient Hittite Empire? Georgia was, admittedly, a bit of a shot in the dark. I knew from my research that the rough region of the modern country was, 3,000 years ago, on the periphery of the Hittite realm. On the maps of the Hittite world that modern historians and archaeologists have put together, we know only of a people known as the Azzi-Hayasi living somewhere near the Georgia-Turkey border. Any further north than that (i.e. right where I was), and we're into the realm of legend. But legend has it that, during Hittite times, one of the grandest expeditions took place, taking a certain Greek hero to this region. I'll let my video explain (and it also gives a quickfire review of my travel reads):
I thoroughly enjoyed my time here at Ureki, reading and contemplating history, swimming in the Black Sea, eating my own body weight in 'kachapuri' (and even gloriously-filthier version of trabzon pide!) and getting far too drunk on the 2.5l bottles of beer! I was taken by the local red wines: Mukuzani and Saperavi. I did pass, however, at the offer of some home-made vodka, packaged in repurposed coke bottles. In general, the prices here were a bit of a pleasant surprise. I struggled to spend more than £5 on a full meal with drinks. Not surprisingly, English speakers were few and far between, and I made the effort to establish a little Georgian (mainly 'cheers' and 'where is the...' kind of stuff).
After a few days here, I was fully recharged, with a spare few inches on my waistline. Time to catch the cross-country train and head eastwards to Georgia's capital!
The train rolled into Tbilisi, and I stepped out onto the buzzing, bustling streets to find that - despite being even further east - the place had a distinctly 'western' air about it. Towering, almost baroque architecture, wide streets and glorious monuments. All this with a distinctly romantic and laid back - almost hippy-esque - vibe. Think Istanbul's vibe set to the backdrop of a mini Paris.
English speakers chattering here and there meant I could largely retire my tortured Georgian skills, and I quickly got my bearings. Tbilisi is set in the floor of the Mt'k'vari river valley, whose sides rise like great walls immediately to the east and west. The city has has two core areas. First, Rustaveli Avenue, a monumental way named after the country's national bard, Shota Rustaveli, who lived in the 12th and 13th centuries. I will admit ignorance in this area, but I soon filled that gap, reading all about his life and works. More, I quickly added 'The Knight in the Panther's Skin' to my TBR pile, The avenue is the modern heart of the capital, lined with second-hand bookstalls, wine bars, boutiques, theatres and halls. Then there's old Tbilisi: a warren of lanes and markets, family kitchens, ultra-cool hippy tea rooms and ruins of the medieval walls, plus a spectacular 6th century AD fortress perched on a bluff commanding the Mt'k'vari River valley.
While navigating on foot to my apartment, I quickly found out just how precipitous the city streets were. I really should have packed crampons! But then something quite memorable happened. I arrived at my apartment (Jonjolly Apartments - highly recommended) and met Mariam, who was there to give me the keys. She greeted me with a warm smile and then an apology: the apartment wasn't quite ready yet - it'd be another half hour or so before they had it tidied up. I was quite happy to sit on the doorstep and read, but she insisted on taking me to sample some Georgian wine. I assumed this meant a quick taster glass in a bar across the road. But no, she drove me to her favourite wine bar in the city and proceeded to ply me with 12 wine tasters and a range of snacks and appetisers: walnut and aubergine dips, freshly toasted flatbread, hummus, cheeses, cured meats and olives. Drool!
Mariam couldn't have been more friendly or welcoming, chatting about her country's history and politics and asking about how things were in Scotland. I really enjoyed the conversation, and came to understand the strength of spirit of the Georgian people, and their sometimes fractious relationship with their giant neighbour in the north, Russia. It's always a bit daunting when you arrive in a new city for the first time, especially in a foreign country, but this was easily the most enjoyable welcome I've ever experienced. Maybe if was because of the 12 glasses of wine, but I decided then and there that Georgia was abshulutely bril-hic!-liant...
The next day I woke, dazed, confused and glad I had already mapped out my itinerary a few days previously. First up, I visited Tbilisi Museum, packed with exhibits from the dawn of man right through to recent centuries - covering the eras of Persia, Rome, Greece, the Ottomans and Seljuks. Tantalisingly, there was a special display covering ancient Georgia's Colchis era, and the wealth of gold and in particular its proliferation of expert goldsmiths. This tied right in with my Hittite interests and potential that the Golden Fleece legend happened at the time of Empires of Bronze. The exhibits were simply breathtaking. The level of skill and creativity from so long ago really shifted my perceptions of history. More, they sowed a dragon's tooth or two in my mind, which may well spring to life in the later books of Empires of Bronze :-).
Back in the Bronze Age, Georgia was known as the Kingdom of Colchis, and it was famed for its reserves of precious minerals and metals - namely gold, which would have been mined from those mountains. More, this was the land which - legend had it - Jason and his Argonauts travelled to in search of the Golden Fleece. Intriguingly, this is thought to have happened in the decades prior to the Trojan War... exactly the time period in which Empires of Bronze begins (rubs hands excitedly).
After the Museum, I sat in the 'Garden of the Republic' park and enjoyed a bit of shade, a sandwich and a read. I didn't realise just how much I would need the fuel... for the temperatures seemed to soar that afternoon, and the walk through the old town became steeper and steeper.
And finally I saw the short distance that would lead me to Narikala fortress - a Persian stronghold built in the 6th c AD. Unfortunately this short distance was almost perfectly vertical. Perhaps I might have clicked that there was an easy way of getting up there, given the funiculars and cable cars zipping around overhead. but it was hot and I was still hungover, Thus I began hiking up my own mini-everest.
Wonderful, eh? And the views from up on the fortress were even better. Here's a video - the final video of my trip - from up on those heights:
Georgia Travel Tips
A full gallery of my journey through Georgia is available here on Facebook (Like and follow, please!)
...the Great Hittite Trail adventure was at an end.
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed and/or drew some inspiration from this.
Now go... explore!
And maybe take a copy of this to read along the way? ;-)
Gordon Doherty, writer, history fan, explorer.
Empires of Bronze: The Shadow of Troy - a blistering new take on the legendary war from the dawn of history.