The itinerary for the day was to tour Mtskheta, the ancient capital of Georgia. After a light brunch, I got my day pack on with my camera and left to visit this ancient city. My plan was to get back to Tbilisi by nightfall.
Mtskheta lies at the confluence of the two rivers, Mtkvari and Aragvi a few miles north of Tbilisi. This ancient city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994 due to its historical importance. Also of great importance are the two churches, Svetitskhoveli and Jvari. To this day, it is considered sacred by the Orthodox Church.
According to my research, the cheapest mode of transport to get to Mtskheta was by a marshrutka. Marshrutkas are mini-buses that work as shared taxis. They are found in Russia and in most of the ex-Soviet ruled countries such as Georgia. It’s a pocket friendly mode of transport around Georgia, perfect for backpackers. Something which the locals prefer to use. The marshrutkas to Mtskheta all start from a local bus station in Didube.
You can always arrange a personal taxi from Tbilisi, something in the range of 20+ GEL ($7.8+) and works out better if you more in your company. But if you are solo and frugal then the marshrutkas are best. There is also a train that goes to Mtskheta from Tbilisi. While I didn’t figure this out at that time, I eventually did when I went to Gori. First you get to the Georgian central station called Sadgurus Moedani. That’s 0.5 GEL ($0.2) with the metro card. From here, buy a ticket on the Georgian Railway to Mtskheta. You can even buy this online. But be aware that the trains are not always available. Their schedules are found here. So unless you are traveling to a place further than Mtskheta, I wouldn’t really recommend it.
Since I was going to use the marshrutka I had to get to Didube. A metro-station on the Tbilisi Metro was only a few stations away from Marjanishvili in Tbilisi where I was staying. I had already familiarized with the metro in Tbilisi over the previous two days and figured this was a 20 minute ride. Outside the metro station at Didube is a market and a sprawling bus station with marshrutkas and taxis leaving to Kazbegi, Gori, Batumi, etc. They all have a different counter to buy the ticket from. Marshrutkas are plenty and you can get a ride almost every hour. It was always busy whenever I got there from my marshrutka journeys and it was equally easy to get lost at. After a bit of walking around in circles, I managed to find the ticket counter for Mtskheta. The ticket for the marshrutka cost me 1 GEL ($0.4) and was a 30 minute ride from Didube. All eyes turned on me as the locals noticed an Arab/Indian looking guy boarding a marshrutka. It is easy to grab attention when you are not a white with a backpack traveling the countryside. Their collective stares were quite amusing at that moment. No one seemed to make any contact with me in the marshrutka.
The marshrutka dropped me at the gates of the ancient city. It’s not really hard to find out where to get off the marshrutka as you can see the church from afar. It felt as though I had gone back a few centuries. With a carefree smile and the sun shining on my back I walked in through the cobbled streets of Mtskheta.
The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, the second largest cathedral in all of Georgia, known as an architectural wonder in the years of yore. Built in the 4th century, now a UNESCO World Heritage site and declared as a holy place by the Christian Eastern Orthodox Church. Apart from a good-looking throne, a chandelier and the big frescoes inside, there were also the tombs of some of the previous rulers of Georgia inside the cathedral. It is also said that a robe of Jesus Christ brought from Jerusalem lies hidden in this cathedral. It was somewhat crowded that day with a live Georgian wedding happening inside. The tourists and the wedding party made a large group of people. The cathedral also has a lovely courtyard around it.
From the courtyard, it’s not hard to notice a small church up on a hill on the other side of the river. This is the Jvari Monastery or the Church of the Holy Cross.
Tourist Information Center
There is a tourist information center right outside the church. Here they can arrange a ride for you to the monastery up on the hill. Marshrutkas are pretty rare to find due to its location. They can either arrange a taxi only for you or you can have more people to share the ride with if you can find some. It cost me 15 GEL ($5.9) if I remember correctly. I had to take this ride alone failing to find other backpackers to join along. It wasn’t so bad either. I spent the next hour or two with a non-english speaking Georgian and we conversed entirely through Google Translate. Now that was an experience! And one of many to come in my time in Georgia.
Yet another point of interest in the old city is the small monastery sitting on top of the hill, the Jvari Monastery built in the 4th-5th century.
It was a short ride to the other side of the river. There seemed to be no shortage of Georgian weddings happening that day and I kept bumping into more couples at the monastery too. Some wedding goals, huh!!
As you hike up the hill to the monastery, you’ll discover the picturesque view of the confluence of the two rivers, Aragvi and Mtkvari. At the monastery, the afternoon mass was taking place and more couples were waiting in line for their oath taking ceremonies. The smell of the burning incense, the smoke rising upwards against the rays of sunlight beaming inside the church through its small glass windows and the poetic prayers in the Georgian language gave an incredible vibe. After the mass was over, the crowd began to gather along with the wedding party and I had to flee!
Back in the old town
We drove back to Mtskheta in hopes of viewing the sunset and an early dinner in the old town. Back on streets of Mtskheta, I walked round and about to see what was on display. I met a man selling fresh juices of cherries, berries, oranges, and pomegranates and had a nice glass full and a few more. There were a few stalls selling souvenirs and I bought myself a cool looking Georgian hat.
Horse carriages on the street gave the small town a medieval feeling. I watched the sun go down while sipping on some killer Georgian red wine with Khinkali, the Georgian version of the Tibetan dumplings filled with spiced ground meat and fillings. By far my favourite dish from all of Georgia.
The food was good and was the ambience. It was a pleasant evening and I felt like staying back in the small town to capture more of it. Slowly, I walked back to where the marshrutka had dropped me earlier. In a few minutes a marshrutka rolled in and I was on my way back to Didube in Tbilisi.
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