I’ve decided to take us on a journey into the heartland of a really magical country. It’s a country which, all of my readers know, I’m deeply connected to and have been for some time. Married to a Georgian, it means that I’ve come to call the country home, and can’t really imagine myself anywhere else long term, no matter where in the world I might jump around too. I’ll still be hanging with Georgians, going to Georgian church, eating Georgian food, and so on. So, I’ve come to face the music, I’ve basically become Georgian. It’s not so bad though, as long as I can watch the calories on my xatchapuri intake.
nothing like an old church in ancient ruins
My wife’s family is from a region of Georgia called Samegrelo. It’s what I think of as the heartland of Georgia. It’s the region where all the Greek legends of Georgia come from and even has its own language—Megrelian, which is a sister language to Georgian. Lots of Georgians think it’s just a dialect, but truth be told, Spanish and Italian are closer relatives than Georgian (Kartuli) and Megrelian. But this is an argument for another day and time, and my point really is to say how unique of a region Samegrelo is. Also, they’ve their own xatchapuri, or cheesy bread. It’s got a nice, crispier top than the usually fluffy Imeretian one, so try it if you’re ever in the country.
How to get there
The capital of Samegrelo is Zugdidi, but if I had to say where the real heartland of the region is, I’d say Martvili (this is probably because my wife’s family lives near there). Martvili is one of those towns that is just booming with tourism opportunities, and it’s really beyond me why the government hasn’t picked up on this. This means that, despite of all the sites to see, there is somewhat limited access to them, and you might be best off just finding a driver and paying him some loads of GEL to take you around. There are also tour guides that will operate out of Kutaisi to cover these places, but if you really want the real feel of the Georgian backcountry, then find some ramshackle hotel in Martvili or Senaki.
Senaki, being on the main rail line to Zugdidi, is also easier to get to than Martvili, though there are marshrutkas to Martvili from Tbilisi, Kutaisi, and Senaki. I’d advice taking the train to Senaki and a marshrutka to Martvili. If you do that, then when you get off the train, drop what little Georgian you might know at the carriage and use this phrase: “So gehreh Martvilish marshrutka?” That means, “Where is the Martvili marshrutka stand?” If you say that, some Megrelian might just be so happy that some random tourist is speaking in Megrelian that they just might drive you themselves. Or show you the marshrutka stand and buy you a beer for the trip. Or something. Both have happened to me on separate occasions.
or a cow hanging out in ancient ruins
If you’re coming to Georgia with an active family, then these are especially good sites to see, also when you add some of the things I had mentioned on my Kutaisi blog.
Martvili, as I’ve said, has kind of been neglected on the tourist map, though places around it are really starting to get discovered, especially as cheap flights to nearby Kutaisi start picking up. It’s the biggest town in the area, which doesn’t say much, and still has a kind of Soviet Georgian feel to it. All around it are villages with lines and lines of Megrelian-style houses with inviting front yards, front balconies, and grapes everywhere. Beautiful woodwork is also a pretty common sight on those balconies, and some Megrelians have started once again taking a liking to the traditional Georgian look, so that the concrete slab places are starting to get fewer again as money starts to circulate more.
old, probably abandoned Megrelian house
In the center of town is a quaint square with a few restaurants and shops. More importantly though, there's a history museum sitting directly on it. Have a visit and discover some of the history of the region, with two floors full of archaeological artifacts found in the area. And don't worry, explanation plates are in English as well. They sometimes have a tour guide who speaks English to give you a fuller explanation.
Martvili is a good spot to base because though it’s a traditional area, it’s got some hotels and restaurants, and it has easy access to amenities a tourist might want—taxis, groceries, and so on. And also, it’s literally in the center of all these places I’m going to list for you. Here we go.
It’s the main feature of the town. It used to be reached by the now dysfunctional cable car that stands near the center of town, but now you’ve got to either walk the hill or find a taxi. The site was on top of a hill and had been used for religious purposes long before Christianity ever came to that soil.
the main church at the monastery
The pagans had used the huge oak tree at the summit as a site for worshiping earthy gods and sacrificing children, as you do. When the place became Christianized, the hilltop residents chopped the tree down to get people to stop doing their pagan practices there and they decided to build a church. The current church dates back to the 10th century, and the interior frescoes to the 14th-17th centuries, and is one of the better preserved/restored complexes I've seen, retaining all the dark mystical attributes I've come to respect about the Orthodox religion.
beautiful work inside the main church
ancient murals are perfect for contemplation
It’s been a long time since I’ve been to Martvili Canyon. When I was first there, there was a steep, rocky parking lot, Ladas blaring out 80s Russian music, and people just lighting fires and barbecuing wherever they could. The whole thing was that weird sort of organized chaos that Georgians thrive on.
taking a rest from paddling
Tourism has picked up though, which meant a lot of that magical weirdness has been toned down. The parking lot has been paved, the boat rentals have been made a little more orderly, and I assume there are less random barbecues (though there are a lot of great little beer gardens and outdoor barbecue cafes in the area).
The times I was there, we either had to pay a boatman, or we found the boatman who was a cousin of a cousin and we didn’t have to pay him. As of writing this, the cost for entry and a boat ride was 25 GEL per person (cash only).
We hopped on the boat, and the journey began. The river goes down a steep canyon, full of waterfalls and sparkling waters. It’s very cool in the summers, with a nice breeze coming down and generally keeping all the horrid heat away. There’s too many people for any real swimming while doing the boat ride though, and the boats make their rotation at a steady rate. However, it is a really relaxing thing to do, and just a beautiful place to see. The water is calm, so don’t worry about falling in, unless you just really want to get wet. People do swim around at the mouth of the canyon, and there’s a little rope swing up there too (when I was there, I’m not sure how it’s changed since the paving project).
hard to beat this relaxation station
After the boat ride, walk in the opposite direction. There’s a trail that climbs down the big cliff on the backside and takes you to a quite and quaint little swimming hole and waterfall. People are often picnicking down there, and Georgians—even moreso Megrelians—tend to get aggressive with visitors, so expect to get pretty smashed drunk on wine or tchatcha.
Speaking of swimming holes, this has to be the best place in the world for an escape away from the summer heat. Imagine a cool river, a bridge to jump off of, and an ancient castle to watch over you.
Nokalakevi, or Tsihkegoji as others might call it, was settled long before any records were written.
pebble beach vacation and ancient ruins, two birds and... lots of stones
entering the old ruins
The town was developed as a fortress and center for trade by the local duke, or eristavi, named Kuji, sometime in the 3rd century BC. It came to prominence as a major fortress town in the time of the Byzantine protectorate of the Kingdom of Lazika, where it served to protect Lazika from the invading Persians back in the 6th century AD.
stairway to heaven
Inside the ruins are a hot springs, the ruins of a Roman bath house, the still active Forty Martyrs Church, huge walls, and lots of other pieces of rubble to explore.
ancient Roman baths
Next to the ruins is a quite interesting museum which features a wide collection of artifacts found at the site, along with Georgian and English script explaining their significance, and also a shallow primer on the history of the ancient Kingdoms of Colcheti, Lazika, and Samegrelo. A real must visit for any interested in history.
inside the museum
For the nature lovers, there’s Okatse Canyon just over the border of Imereti (and not far from that, there’s Georgia’s tallest waterfall, Khinchkha). Not long ago, they decided to make a real place out of Okatse and they’ve been going to extensive lengths—short of providing easy ways for tourists to get there—to develop it. For anyone visiting the region though, it’s a must-see.
the beginning of the bridge
I’ve been to this one twice myself, and each time their investments were clearly advancing. The fee for foreigners is 15 GEL, and is paid at an entrance building that has a big plastic map of the gorge. Then you take a peaceful walk through a rather large forest recreation area, where people are camping, barbecuing, playing soccer, and so on. For this, you don’t even have to worry about bringing water, as there are plenty of people there selling drinks, meat, and watermelon as you go.
The peaceful walk takes a nosedive nearly straight down, but with nice views of the foothills around. Then it goes up and you get to the canyon.