Saturday 13 Jun
With very little difficulty, we convinced a taxi driver to take us on a tour of the countryside to see the sights. We didn't realise this would involve spending the whole day on bumpy roads. Anyway, after a very long drive, we reached Vardzia, a large monastery carved into a cliff. Despite the hundreds of Georgian students (and no other tourists), it was really cool. It reminded me immediately of Petra, except that instead of enormous façades with tiny box-like tombs behind them, it consisted of a bewildering network of tunnels with houses, churches, and god knows what else built into them. Less display but more substance! There were impressive frescoes inside the church (inside the cliff), and an even more impressive story about how up to 2000 monks used to live here until they were defeated in a battle with the Persians inside the tunnels.
Next, the taxi driver took us to his house for lunch. When he suggested this I thought it sounded bizarre, but I think everything is explained by the really small number of tourists in Georgia. The lunch consisted of bread, cheese, some noodle type things, and salad. But such a salad! If I thought after nearly three months in the middle east I was sick of cucumber and tomato, I was wrong. The tomatoes were really tasty, served in man-sized chunks with various herbs and a slightly salty dressing which I can't identify. Somehow, the end result was universally agreed to be really good food. Before moving on to the strawberries, we had to clean our plates with bread because "no girls, no service" (our hosts were three men). This might be an insight capable of explaining many things!
The house had its own spring, at which bottles were filled up with much ceremony. I quickly figured out that every place in Georgia has its own spring.
The only problem with this lunch was the compulsory servings of the local firewater, cha cha. I made the mistake of trying to get out of the third or fourth toast and from then on my glass was under permanent surveillance.
Slighly drunk and on an even worse road, we reached a cluster of churches and one of the monks showed us around and explained how the Russians mysteriously painted over all the 14th century frescoes with blue or white paint (the blue paint was much harder to remove). We couldn't figure out how he spoke such good English, but he was so friendly he gave us some souvenir photos as a parting gift.
We returned to Akhaltsikhe fairly exhausted but definitely impressed.