Wednesday, 6 November 2019
Peace and space at the Alaverdi Monastery
Travelling to Georgia - something I've dreamt of and even semi-planned for years - and not going hiking in the high Caucasus is a bit like going to Switzerland and not walking in the Alps. Let me say that I was very fortunate to go at all this September, courtesy of the amazing Tsinandali Festival, and grateful that I could look out on those mountains, albeit in varying conditions, always grey, from my superb hotel room above the concert halls and the English park beyond, which Alexandre Dumas the Elder, visiting Prince Chavchavadze here in his summer mansion, described as 'the garden of Eden'.
Better still was the chance to swim, come rain or - no rain, in the pool on the roof terrace. No wild dipping to be had on this trip - the rivers were mostly dry anyway - but this was a splendid indulgence.
Concert and workshop schedules, plus work most hours for the first two days in between on some programme notes I needed to complete, were such that there was no chance to leave our oasis, but I was determined to get to the Alaverdi Monastery, some 25 km away on the Kakheti plain and just that bit closer to the mountains. The only way to do it was to ask if the driver taking me back to Tbilisi could make a detour, and amen, that was possible.
From the modern facilities opposite the monastery, I guess coachloads must come here. But my only companions were a very quiet group of Russian pilgrims and their driver, here talking to the watchman. It's a fully functioning monastery, so no fees but also very strict rules about decorum. Founded by Assyrian Father St Joseph, the present mighty Cathedral of St George, built from local travertine stone, dates back to the early 11th century, but has been much rebuilt following invasions and earthquakes. For over three centuries the 50 metre high dome was the highest in Georgia, and it's still awe-inspiring.
The defensive walls were added in the 18th century, the gateway in the next century; the most recent restoration of the complex was made in 2010. Some of the hives producing the celebrated Alaverdi honey under the Taplikatsi label are placed around the orchard-moat
and seem to be thriving.
The display vineyard within the walls has over 100 varieties of grape.
There's a solitary old olive tree, handsomely offset by the travertine south wall
and gravestones in front of the west entrance.
Whitewashed over by the Russians, some of the old frescoes have come to light, especially around the west door.
Above is the patron saint
and to the right St Peter - note also the bunch of grapes. Winemaking in Kakheti is ancient, and some of the kvevri or large terracotta pots used in the process were discovered in a cellar here.
Within, all is peace - so much so that I got a bit teary, even though I know that the Georgian Orthodox Church is rigidly conservative and an impediment to civil liberties. Obviously no photos allowed, so just this one from the doorway gives a glimpse of the magnificent dome inside (alas, there are no postcards or a guidebook to show illustrations of the interior).
Further time spent lingering along the south wall
and out past the stream
where I was delighted to see the exquisitely coloured Eryngium I've tried - and failed - to grow in the back yard. I thought it was a marine plant, but the title of this hermaphroditic species tells the truth: Eryngium caucasicum.
The complimentary butterfly is, I think, only a Common blue (Polyomattus icarus), but still good to see in this context.
And the sun came out after many shades of grey and wet. I wish I'd engaged my very benign driver, who only spoke a few words of English, earlier in asking him to play some semi-traditional music he liked; we had a splendid selection for the last 45 minutes of the journey. Before that, he kindly offered to stop at the top of the Gombori Pass - yes, it looks like Box Hill in Surrey but 1620m is still something -
which is approached by splendid woods on the Kakheti side and remains fairly lush on the summit.
Hives were plentiful here, too, guarded by the honeysellers who would seem to be camping up here for the peak gathering season.
My alternative to Alaverdi would have been to spend more time in Tbilisi, but I hope I'll be coming back, and I had three hours on the Sunday morning before leaving for Tsinandali. After a Saturday flying via Istanbul, I was too knackered to get up early as friend Cally had suggested to go out and catch the church singing, and it was bucketing with rain, which, once glimpsed, sent me back to bed until 10am. Even so, I had a good expedition. I'd hoped to get to the botanical gardens where swallowtail butterflies were promised, but that proved too far once I'd made an unintended detour below the Kashveti Church
where people were pouring out after the big service. Eventually I found my way inside the old town, which deserved much more time than I had. Disused churches falling apart, but in a very picturesque way,
and green-clad buildings in various stages of decrepitude
including this one, beyond the gate of which - before I snapped this photo - an old lady feeding a kitten was pure Dutch genre painting,
run parallel to other streets fully restored for the tourist route, though it's lovely to see the stray dogs, all tagged with yellow discs to show they've had their injections etc, very much tended to by the locals.
Most suggestive of the churches is surely the Anchiskhati - I was told I should have caught the choir here, Tbilisi's best
while the Sioni Cathedral is well looked after
with a replica of the highly-venerated St Nino's Cross (I think) in the courtyard
and the neoclassical edifice over the way where Griboyedov married Prince Chavchavadze's daughter Nino (I've written briefly about the link on the Tsinandali piece).
Tbilisi is an exhilarating mix of old and new - the latter mostly tacky, as this seems like Potterville Central with its abundance of casinos -
but still I can't wait to return, and then head up to Svaneti. Very regretfully, I had to turn down an offer of a trip to Armenia this month, simply because the death of the great Kancheli meant I would have felt duty bound to attend the event celebrating him in a contemporary festival on the Sunday, and couldn't have got back in time for my Monday opera class. And anyway, GOT to stop flying everywhere.