Balkan Honeymoon Stop 2: Heading East to Trabzon and Georgia

As our trip’s velocity continues to increase, it’s high time for another post, before I fall any further behind. After the Izmir area, our second destination was Georgia, but getting there was another adventure. We awoke early (4:30 am) to take a taxi to the airport, then consecutive one hour flights to Ankara and then to Trabzon, flying across much of Turkey to reach the north-eastern corner of the country.

Boarding a bus from Trabzon airport and arriving at the central area of Trabzon, Ataturk Alevi square, by bus, we confirmed what internet research indicated—our flight got in just an hour too late to make the organized tour to  Sumela Monastery outside of Trabzon. Instead we parked our luggage at a nearby hotel and hopped on a bus headed to Matchka, a long, windy, but very beautiful route through valleys looking up at neighboring mountains. From Matchka, we took a taxi up to the base of Sumela, another 20 minute drive through mountains. For most of this drive, the mountains we drove through were snow-covered, reminding us that it was indeed winter and creating an incredibly beautiful backdrop. Once at the base, the taxi made one attempt up before stopping and informing us that we would have to do the rest by foot while taxi and driver waited below, in the warm restaurant. We trekked the ~ one kilometer up at a fairly slow pace, trudging carefully up a snow and ice laced path. The way up was quite solitary—a 25 minute ordeal surrounded by mountains, trees, ice and snow, during which we encountered no other people (or animals of any kind). We stopped every 5 minutes to take breaks—and photos.

At the top, we finally arrived at Sumela Monastery. Entering through the Museumcard turnstiles, we climbed up another very long flight of stairs and entered the monastery. The guard towers were surprising; given the difficulty in reaching this remote mountaintop structure, we pondered why anyone would want to attack it. But indeed, the monastery was invaded by the Russians in the early 1900s and after being used for 600 years, was then abandoned (although it is anachronistic to claim that the builders of the monastery feared a Russian threat with relatively modern war technology when building this mountainous home). We saw the kitchen, dining room, baking area and student’s quarters. Most impressive however, was the old church area, small, but covered outside and inside with 1300s era drawings depicting biblical scenes.

The way down we had slightly more human companionship (and a much harder trip). After an arduous, slippery path, we heard the rushing water of the stream at the bottom and knew that we were back. I was left with sincere admiration for the dedicated people who built a monastery in such a pristine, but difficult to reach location, and who continually lived there for hundreds of years.

At the bottom of the mountain (in the café) we sat down and talked for a bit with a young couple from Istanbul while waiting for our taxi driver to finish lunch. The guy had incredibly visited most of our honeymoon spots in the last 6 months- he told us that he and his girlfriend were returning from Tbilisi, Georgia and that he had spent the summer backpacking in the Balkans, passing through most of the countries we will visit. Naturally, he had a lot of helpful information which he was happy to share (in quite good English). Our new friends joined us for the taxi back to Matchka, from there we took a bus back to Trabzon. Then we all followed a local Trabzonite to a minibus which took us to the Aya Sophia museum (like the Aya Sophia in Istanbul, the Trabzon Aya Sophia was used as a church, then mosque and is now a tourist site. It was interesting to look at it and note how unusual its architecture was for a mosque; yet its decorations include Muslims motifs as well which would be unexpected in a church. With no indoor lighting and the sun having just set, we had to rely on our flash to “see” the paintings on the interior of the church. (I would advise against this in the future; it turns out that there was a sign prohibiting flash photography, but they didn’t bother to light that sign either, so we didn’t see it until it was too late).

Returning from the Aya Sophia again by minibus, we said goodbye to our new friends, but not before exchanging contact information to stay in touch when we return to Istanbul. We then grabbed some bread, our bags and boarded a minibus to the bus station. From there we made a 5:30 bus to the Georgian border. Three and a half hours later, we disembarked at Sarpi, exited Turkey and entered Georgia. At the Georgian border, the border guard spent about 5 minutes poring over my US passport, muttering into her Bluetooth, before finally issuing the stamp and waving me through.

On the Georgian side, despite being 11pm (we had apparently passed through two time changes, thanks to all of Turkey being kept in the same time zone), there was a friendly Georgian in front of the tourist stand to welcome us and hand us helpful maps and brochures. I was happy to note that the synagogue was one of the sites listed prominently. After finding a taxi to take us to a well-priced hotel in Batumi, we bunkered down for the night.

We began our sightseeing day at 11, at the synagogue. A large, beautiful white building, the synagogue is less than 100 years old. It appeared locked, but we entered the courtyard from the side and found a man working on his car who directed us to a side building, where we found three women preparing something food-related in a kitchen. With communication limited strictly to Shalom and synagogue, one of the women escorted us to the synagogue, opened the door and waited as we walked around the inside of the building. A large, modern-looking sanctuary lined with chairs and a second floor balcony for the women’s section, the most unique part of the synagogue (besides the impression it gave of a relatively large community) were the Georgian and Israeli flags hanging side by side from the women’s section. In the back of the room was a small model with an American flag hanging at half-mast (Eliana surmised that this was due to the Sandy Hook incident). I opened a bookcase to remove a siddur and look inside; the siddur was one of several Judaica books transliterated (or translated, as we couldn’t even read it to tell the difference) into Georgian. With again almost no verbal communication, we were informed (we think) that the synagogue is used daily for shaharit at 7:00 am.

Following the synagogue visit we intended to head toward one of several museums in the area. But upon taking out our map, before I could get our bearings, a man walking down the street with two models in his hands looked at us and asked “tourists?” Following him, we entered the Ajara State Museum. We soon found ourselves in a room on the second floor of the museum filled with cars, buildings and various scenes made of paper, cardboard, matchsticks and assorted other domestic supplies. After a phone call to an English speaking friend, we were proudly told by our new friend (Sulxan, as we would soon learn) that he had personally made by hand all of the crafts that we saw. With archeological findings of clay pottery and weaponry ringing the room, the cars, trucks, hotels, circus and other structures he had created were truly impressive; some were even rigged with motors and could be set in motion via remote control.

After a brief tour of another room in the museum which contained art done by Georgian children, we were soon following Sulxan along down the street, first into the Aksoy Art Gallery (where we were shown several works of art by Georgian Jewish artists), then in front of numerous impressive hotel buildings and other local sites as our new friend insisted on taking a photo of Eliana and I in front of seemingly every local image of any importance. We walked together through Batumi’s Miracle Park, stopping by statues, fountains, restaurants and various buildings to add to the growing collection of pictures, a veritable honeymoon album. After about two hours, and only after calling his English speaking friend to ask us for him whether we would stay in Batumi tomorrow (he wanted to spend more time with us), Sulxan finally tracked down another (partially) English-speaking Georgian who told us that our friend had to leave and wished us “bye.”

By that point we had walked through most of the park. Stopping at a bakery to pick up some bread products for lunch, we saw the Orta Mosque (the “middle mosque” is the only one in Batumi to survive the Communist era). The mosque is from the 1880s, but was closed for about half of its existence, when Batumi was under Soviet control. Upon Georgia regaining its independence, religious institutions were reopened and the mosque reopened (although several others which had exited did not). Sitting inside the mosque complex, which is attached to several food stores and other buildings, we saw beautifully painted doors in bright colors, more reminiscent of a child’s room than a mosque. The interior was likewise beautifully and uniquely painted.

Leaving the mosque, we walked to a park fronting the Holy Mother Virgin’s Nativity Cathedral and had our lunch there. From there we walked to where our guidebooks indicated the Museum of Education would be, but found the door locked. Around the corner, we had more luck at the Archeology museum. Housed in a large, impressive stone building, the museum tells the story of human history in the Ajara region (which includes Batumi) via archeological findings; every historical period of interest beginning with the Neolithic getting at least one glass show case filled with objects excavated from regional sites. Tools, jewelry, even burial items were all displayed, dating back thousands (and in some cases tens of thousands) of years. When we concluded our loop of the one large, two-storied room which makes up the museum, we were offered tutchkhaila by the museum staff. Tutchkhaila, as were informed, is a Georgian sweet, made of a jellied grape substance with pine nuts in the middle and tasting quite delicious.

After leaving the museum, we continued up to the 5 May Park, where a children’s entertainment center and boating on a small lake are surpassed in interest by an aquarium, zoo and a dolphinarium. Although we did not get to see the dolphinarium (where dolphin shows and swimming with dolphins occurs) or aquarium, we did pay the one lari ($.60) to see the zoo. Modest in size, the zoo is primarily primates, with a sizeable collection of various macaws, cockatoos and other birds, including a vulture and a frighteningly large eagle. While the whole zoo could be take in comfortably in about ten-fifteen minutes, we took much longer, spending much of the time in front of one cage where a mother was carrying around an infant monkey. The size of the zoo was compensated by the fact that the monkeys were quite animated and their behavior (cleaning one another, playing) easily observed. We then walked along New Boulevard, a tree-lined path that makes up the Batumi boardwalk along the Black Sea, heading north before finally turning eastward toward our hotel. After consuming several cups of tea, we were off to the train station, where we bought our tickets on the sleeper train to Tbilisi, and two hour later we were laying down on beds headed to Tbilisi. While many sights and sites in Batumi are clearly seasonal and the city must be much more exciting in the summer, we thoroughly enjoyed spending a day mostly just wandering the parks and streets of Batumi.

Tbilisi: We arrived in Tbilisi’s central train station at 7am. I used the free wifi in the train station to find us a hostel, book a room and then we grabbed a taxi and headed off. After dropping our stuff off, I headed out to walk around the city (Eliana was too cold to come out). Tbilisi was, as expected, much colder than Batumi (or Izmir, or Trabzon) had been.

I walked from the hostel to the central cultural area, Rustavelli Avenue, orienting myself as best I could. Asking directions to the synagoga, I found my way to the main synagogue of Tbilisi. I prayed shaharit there in the beautifully wallpapered, very large multi-story synagogue. I also met Mikhael, a young hazan and shohet (he held up a bloody knife while several white chickens seemed to cower in a little shack adjacent to the synagogue) who in fairly fluent Hebrew told me the time for daily services and where we could find the kosher restaurant.

Walking back up from the synagogue toward Freedom Square, I came across a second synagogue, Bet Rachel. Stopping in there, I found another man who possessed fluent Hebrew and I was able to look inside another large, new-looking synagogue. In between the synagogues, a sign for a local hostel indicated that this was a common area for Israeli tourists; the sign listed the name of the hostel in English and Hebrew.

Back at Freedom Square, I took the metro a couple of steps back to the stop nearest the hostel. Only after talking to the hostel owner and my friend Sali, did I find out that many Georgians don’t use the Metro at all. But I found the Metro to be fairly useful (and very well-priced).

After taking advantage of the microwave in the hostel to heat up one of our boxes of kosher meat meals for lunch, it was off to the National Museum on Rustavalli, with 2 hours there taking in the archeological findings of 3500 years of history in gold and silver findings, 19th century Chinese, Iranian and Japanese art, a display on the restoration of Tbilisi’s cultural center and national museums and a moving exhibit on Georgia under the Soviet occupation.

After leaving the museum, I tried to find the Museum of Musical Instruments, with mixed results (I found the museum only a few buildings off of the number it was listed at, next to Melekhi Church, but it was apparently closed, with no explanation). From there, we headed to pray minha at the main synagogue. We met a friendly man named Hayyim who works as a caretaker at the synagogue. I also met a man who was visiting his hometown for a six-month stay, after 40 years of living in Israel.

We walked around the corner to the kosher restaurant and sat down to a wonderful meat meal, three delicious courses for a very affordable $20. We then walked back up to Freedom Square and took the Metro back to our hostel.

On Friday morning I prayed at the “other” synagogue in Tbilisi. After services (beginning at 8, ending at 9), I attended a short class given by one of the Hebrew speakers—a Georgian who had grown up secular, moved to Israel, became religious there and then returned to Tbilisi to help his community. His class was in Georgian (itself mostly a translation from the Ben Ish Hai’s Hebrew), but it was translated back into Hebrew for my benefit by the other Hebrew speaker in attendance—also a native Georgian who had lived in Israel for a long time before coming back to serve in his old community. The two strengthen the community’s religious background, and one of them also runs tourist services for Israelis and other Jews who are visiting Georgia.

After the class everyone wanted to make sure that we were set up for Shabbat meals. I was even given a bottle of homemade kosher wine. From Bet Rachel, I walked to the main synagogue and spent some time there waiting for the man who runs the kosher store to arrive. When he did, I was able to buy cold cuts prepared in Israel for a French-speaking market, for far less than they would have cost in the US.

After returning to the hostel to get Eliana, we headed for the cable cars to ride up to the top of the mountain and Narikala Fortress. The cable car ride was very fast; we estimated that they made the one direction trip in less time than it takes to ride the terrifyingly long escalator up or down to the Tbilisi Metro. From the top, there was a great view of Tbilisi and the surrounding mountains in all directions, as well as a close up of the fortress remains that are mostly crumbling.

From the fortress (via the return cable car ride) we rushed back to the hostel and prepared our bags for my friend Sali’s dad, who was to meet us at the hostel. He picked us up and we were soon headed up into a more residential area of Tbilisi to stay with Sali’s family.

Arriving at their home, we were given a very warm welcome, immediately accepted as members of the family. Eliana had caught a cold by now from the traveling and cold weather, so Tamara, Sali’s mom, kicked into Jewish mother gear and fussed over Eliana. Between her care, her tea with honey and her chicken soup, Eliana had a very quick 24 hour recuperation period.

I joined Meir, Sali’s dad, in walking 20km, or 12 miles, over Shabbat- returning from synagogue Friday night, walking to and from Saturday morning and walking to the synagogue again Shabbat afternoon for Minha and Arvit services (we got rides before and after Shabbat so as not to have to make any extra 5km walks). Meir makes the walk at least three times daily (for Friday night and Shabbat morning); the only two functioning synagogues are in the same area, five minutes away from one another.

After two wonderful Shabbat meals with our new Georgian family, Meir and I walked in for the final time to attend minha. After minha, seudat shelishit was held, with meat pastries and fruit served and a speech in Georgian by the rabbi. Following arbit and havdala, we were all set to walk home, but then we heard a loud noise and all of the lights on the block went out. A few minutes later, sirens could be heard, and fire trucks and police cars began racing up the street. Only a few hundred feet from the synagogue, a raging fire was going on. Fire truck after fire truck arrived on the scene, as the firefighters battled frantically to get the flames under control. An entire swath of ancient-looking buildings of Old Tbilisi was covered in flames, with billowing smoke rising from the chaotic scene. Sparks flew through the sky, landing in the synagogue courtyard, where people rushed to stamp them out. Meir stood on the second floor balcony and watched while another half-dozen community members stood below, waiting in case there would be a need to evacuate the sifrei Torah from the building (itself only renovated in the last few months). Despite the sizeable group of firefighters on the scene, when neighboring and even adjacent buildings began to erupt in flames, the concerns seemed very real. I was of course more worried about Meir, who vigilantly remained in his lookout perch, despite repeated requests from other community members. Just in the nick of time, the firefighting crew managed to run back the flames, surrounding the fire with streaming water from all sides. When we left, after an hour or so of tensely watching the blaze, it seemed under control, but not yet out, with firefighters climbing bravely on the roofs of decrepit, charred buildings, looking for flames that had not yet been extinguished and which could reignite the fire.

After hailing a taxi and returning home, Eliana and I prepared our bags to once again hit the road. We had one last delicious meal prepared by Tamara, who then packed up the leftovers and even went out to buy some extra goodies to send along with us. Both Meir and Tamara came along with us to the train station, which was very lucky for us.

At the train station we found out that we had just missed the last train to Batumi; the next train leaving in the morning would get us in much too late to make our flight. Once again, Meir and Tamara saved the day, by finding the van that would make the journey, leaving at midnight and arriving at 6:00 am. It wasn’t the sleeper train, but it would get us there in time. With hugs and kisses, we had a bittersweet farewell, then waited in the train station until the van was ready to leave.

Just before the van left, we got a surprise phone call—Tamara, who had taken down the number of the driver, called to make sure that we were ok and on the van. Even when we were almost on the road, she was still concerned about us!

At 2:00 am, the bus pulled into Surami, Georgia, for a 20 minute bathroom and meal break. At least that was the plan. The scary moment of the trip came when it was time to leave. Our driver turned the key and the engine sputtered, then died. This happened several more times, until on the seventh or eighth try, the van started. We breathed sighs of relief, prematurely as it turned out. A few minutes later, the engine died once again. This time the driver could not get the car to restart; it would sputter and then die. Eventually, the driver put the van into neutral and began rolling us backwards toward the roadstop, where presumably he would seek help. After 15-20 feet of rolling, the engine miraculously came roaring back. We made the next four hours of driving without any more issues.

At 6:30, we arrived at the Batumi airport, joining the three security staff and two other passengers sitting in the tiny airport. We lay down on the chairs and napped for about three hours. By 9:30, although there was still no activity to begin checking in passengers, someone from Pegasus Airlines had arrived. I went to talk to the man there, only to have him contradict what I had been told in Tbilisi: we would have to cross the border into Turkey and travel to Hopa to check in to our flight, which would actually leave from Batumi airport (where we were now standing), due to the fact that our tickets were from Hopa and not Batumi (a significant price difference). Following his instructions, we boarded a bus to the border, left Georgia (knowing we’d be back in a few hours), entered Turkey and took a cab to the Hopa bus station, where Turkish and Pegasus Airlines have a small terminal. Several hours later, we checked out bags, got yet another Turkish exit stamp in our passport, boarded a bus chartered by Pegasus and began our return to Batumi airport. One hour later, we were back in the same airport, waiting to board our “Hopa-Istanbul” flight, which of course left from Batumi. This is all part of the excitement of traveling less-common routes, off-season, on a budget!



About the Author
Steven Aiello has a BA in Economics from NYU and an MA in Diplomacy and Conflict Studies from the IDC Herzliya. He has also studied Jewish, Islamic, Israeli and British law. Steven has served as Chief of the Middle East Desk Head for Wikistrat, interned for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the American Islamic Congress.He edits and teaches part-time. He can be reached via email at