The Didube Station was just as I had left it in the morning. Crowded, noisy, disorientating. I was trying to find my way among the small shops selling bread and snacks on all sides. Marshrutkas, the iconic old Georgian vans, were parked everywhere. Some had their signs written in English, others in Russian. It seemed I would have to go and decipher signs written in Georgian alphabet this time as my destination was nowhere to be found.
I had been in Georgia for a couple days and had gotten accustomed to its unusual letters that looked like an alphabet straight out of a fantasy novel. I could not read entire words in Georgian alphabet but identifying a few letters would be easy enough to put two and two together. When I saw a TS, a KH and an A, I knew I had finally found my way.
The ticket to Mtskheta was inexpensive, even more so than what I had expected. Sure, the ancient Georgian capital was only a mere 15 minutes away but 1 lari was a stretch! I didn't complain though as I bought one ticket at a nearby store and found a free seat just before the van started to get packed. Like all marshrutkas, this one didn't really work on a tight schedule. When the driver decided he had taken up all the passengers he could cram into his vehicle, he simply hit the road.
As expected, the trip was short. Mtskheta first revealed itself through the distant Jvari Monastery, looming over the city atop a mountain. Then, the roof of the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral appeared across a river. The marshrutka didn't work on a tight schedule and neither did it have a specific stop. I thus decided to go with the flow and follow the few other tourists on the van. We all figured the city would be so small that finding out the cathedral would be child's play. In truth, we were right.
All it took was to follow a narrow alley lined up with cosy houses, partly hidden by pomegranate trees. Down that alley stood the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, right in front of a brand new tourist office. Past the gate to the Cathedral were scattered groups of people gathering in front of the holy place. I spotted a bride in pristine white dress and remembered that this Cathedral in particular was the holiest Orthodox Church in Georgia and therefore the place to go for newly-weds.
Before entering the building, I took a stroll around it to appreciate its majesty. The outside of the Cathedral was rather stark but it was plain to see that this was one of the oldest places of worship in the country. Svetitskhoveli, Georgian for the “Life-Giving Pillar”, was built in the 11th century on the remains of the oldest church ever to be built in Georgia in the 4th century.
As I came in, I didn't forget to pick up a second-hand headscarf on loan at the entrance of the building and covered my head with it, as was expected of every woman within an Orthodox Church. I could only pray that every other woman who had used these headscarves had washed their hair before that but that was probably my punishment for forgetting to bring my own shawl anyhow.
The atmosphere within the Cathedral was solemn. Away was the merry banter from outside, replaced by a pious silence, interrupted by muttered prayers every now and then. Pilgrims came in and kissed the icons of saints hanging on the walls or burnt incense sticks, before the eyes of a priest dressed in black. It was all mesmerizing to watch and surprising too, for such a place to be so touristy and so spiritual at the same time.
The main street across the Cathedral was not so soulful though. Street vendors were selling everything from embroidered scarves to snacks and it seemed the street had been turned into a tourist market long ago, which didn't prevent me from indulging in a local snack the shape of a long, sticky sausage. The infamous churchkhela, a local-favourite sweet made of nuts dipped into thickened grape or pomegranate juice, looked a bit repellent at first. In the end, it was so good that I bought two more and brought a dozen back home. The saying was right, I shouldn't have judged a book by its cover.
It only took me a few minutes to finish eating my churchkhela and finish walking the street leading away from the Cathedral and near the river. Mtskheta was a small town indeed and almost all tourists had already vanished from my sight. In front of me was an unrestrained cow grazing peacefully and in the distance was the mysterious Jvari Monastery. I could have turned back and hailed a taxi but my attention was drawn to an unassuming building on my left.
The sign near the door said the place was called the Antioch Church. It was a nunnery, even to this day, and the neatly maintained garden where yet another cow was grazing did not tell me otherwise. It seemed the nuns were making their own wine too as vine grapes were hanging near the main gate. The church itself was modest, smaller than most village chapels in my home country, but it had some well-preserved frescoes on the inside and exuded serenity.
As I left the Church, I felt like I hadn't made the most of Mtskheta quite yet and decided to head to the Samtavisi Church before going to Jvari. An Orthodox priest was discussing with congregants in the main yard, while one group of Russians was touring the place with their guide. Again though, the Church did not feel like a mere sightseeing spot as many locals came by to pray. Samtavisi was part of the life of the community, underlying Georgian's strong relationship with Christianity, in a country that prided itself with being one, if not the first country in history to become Christian.
Sun was declining when I decided it was time to finally pay a visit to the Jvari Monastery. I struggled with a taxi driver to make myself understood and not be ripped off in the process. He spoke Russian only all the way to the Monastery and I thanked God for my Russian classes back in high school. The word “десать” (ten) had been particularly useful so far, although that wasn't helping much when it came to having an actual conversation.
The drive to Jvari felt longer than the one from Tbilisi but the 6th-century so-called Monastery of the Cross delivered on all its promises once I got there. Located on top of a mountain, the Monastery offered a clear view on the city and the Aragvi River down below. The inside of the Monastery was characteristic of the Middle Ages and quite bare but its architecture was quite unique, adorned with beautiful bas-reliefs. It had been listed a Unesco Heritage site for good reason.
Before we returned to Mtskheta, the driver that had been waiting for me enthusiastically asked for a picture and then drove me down to the town. For a moment, I regretted not asking me to take me back to Tbilisi as there was no clear marshrutka stop anywhere and the few vans I hailed ignored me completely. A good twenty minutes later, one cramped marshrutka finally stopped and I left the ancient Georgian capital to come back to the new one.