The Georgian Fluke

Leslie Cieplechowicz 

© Copyright 2023 by 
Leslie Cieplechowicz

Photo of Gelati Monastery by Herbert Frank on Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of Gelati Monastery by Herbert Frank on Wikimedia Commons.

As my dusty, white Kira rolled into the small village, a group of men chatting and lolling on the crumbling stone fence grew quiet and all fixated their eyes on me. I keep my gaze forward, glancing at the Google map, now froze on my iPhone screen due to no service. The villagers were not used to seeing woman traveling alone, much less an American woman and in many parts of country of Georgia, whose roots extend deep into tradition, I was sometimes looked at with suspicion and contempt. I also was not a native speaker, so I was quite a stranger in a strange and beautiful land.

I had ended up in Georgia on a fluke. A friend had mentioned he was going and asked if I wanted to come along. Intrigued and up for an adventure, I agreed though I knew very little about the country. When he backed out, I tucked the idea of the Georgia trip in a file in my brain, thinking I could never go a country by myself that I knew nothing about. I feel that if most Americans were asked where the country of Georgia is, they most likely would point the peach state north of Florida. Few would identify the country touching next to the Russia and nestled next to the Black Sea.
There was however, one of my colleagues who would not abandon the idea. Each morning, she showed me compelling photos and sites of the country, encouraging me to go. She regaled me with stories of how economic travel was there. She planted a seed that grew tendrils into my psyche and goaded me on. So, I did what any sane person would do, I booked a flight to Georgia, figuring I would learn about the nation as I wandered about it.

Georgia is a country with multiple personalities. A bridge between west Asia and southern Russia, it is considered part of eastern Europe. Because of its unique position, its culture has been shaped by a variety of influences and it hosts multiple nationalities. Once part of the Soviet Union, its historic architecture retains many of the features during that era. Its language however has retained its own characteristics, and is neither European, Russian, or Turkish, but uniquely Georgian. I learned, according to my Google research, that English was widely used in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, and there was a sprinkling of its use in the countryside. I found this not to be the case. English is not spoken much anywhere so I had many a conversation with my hands with tolerate and understanding natives.

The geography of Georgia is as varied as its people. On the eastern side, I discovered dusty, rolling, grassy plains that reflect the heat of the afternoons. On the western side, I meandered through Colchic rainforests that dripped tears along the ragged coastline of the Black Sea. The Caucasus mountains separate the country east from west. Throughout, I explored fortified, medieval castles, churches whose interiors were brushed with religious figures from ages ago, tiny villages perched on the summit of mountains, and aging theaters with flaking, ornate exteriors.

There are some notable places that I will recollect about and smile. One is the Gelati monastery from 1106 AD, resting on the lower slope of a mountain, a twisting road its only access. Friendly monks slipped across the grassy courtyards intertwined between the three churches built over the centuries. A devilish puppy cavorted around me while I gazed at the grave of King David the Builder covered by a smooth stone hewed archway, that if I crossed, I was told the ruler would bring me good luck. Inside the main church, its walls were richly decorated with delicate murals from the 12th-17th century and the virgin mother with child rose above me in a glorious mosaic flanked by archangels. At the edge of the property, which tumbled off a cliff, I stood next to a stony wall and peered across the green flecked countryside bathed in a soft light.

Another charming memory was when I spied the towering Tbilisi Sameba Church, soaring over the capital, with its 7.5-meter gold gilded cross mounted on a dome resting on eight massive columns. As I draped my head with a silk scarf and entered, I viewed its soaring crème and golden arches etched in light and its ivory iconostasis hung with stern religious icons at its front. Candles flickered in an alcove. The church’s immense history pressed into my soul, and I grew quiet and introspective while walked on its marble tiles.

The last place I would like to share is a mansion buried in a rainforest I stumbled upon northeast of Batumi. I lost my bearings, which was common, as the WIFI got snagged and faded in the Caucasus mountains. It is one of those travel memories that was not planned and just happened because of unforeseen circumstances, one that could overwhelm a traveler if they are not careful, one that just needs to be experienced with calmness and humor. The home was near the end of a narrow, snaking road, abandoned and forlorn with crumbling steps leading up to it. Intrigued, I stepped out of my vehicle, and gestured to a neighbor working outside if I could go up and snap a picture. A faint smile traced his lips and he nodded once. I climbed the steps and marveled at the stateliness of the flaking exterior with its arched entrance ways, forgetting I was lost. Snapping photos, I stepped inside to get a closer view of the curved, faded blue staircase then felt something crawling on my legs. I looked down to see my calves covered in dozens of fleas. I bolted back to my car, scrapping the hopping bugs from my skin. I eventually figured out where I was.

With all the traveling I did, from one end of the country to the other, I always developed a powerful hunger by the evening. While roaming, I feasted on khachapuri, the national dish of the country, a canoe of bread with gooey melted cheese in the center topped with an egg and butter. For dessert, I sunk my teeth into churchkela, a colorful sweet made from walnuts that Georgian soldiers used to take to war. And if my stomach growled in between meals, I stopped at local bakeries and purchased crusty, chewy, warm loaves of bread. One of my favorite food stops is sitting next to the Black Sea under a turquoise umbrella on a hot, stony beach, enjoying a cold, sweaty glass of Argo, the local popular beer while waiting for ordered kninkali, a spicy dumpling.

I wanted a rollicking adventure and I received it, traveling to Georgia. The sights, the sounds, the cities, and the people will forever be etched in my memory. I desired something different, something unexpected, and the land delivered. I would love to head back, more confident and with a great understanding of the culture, to explore places I missed. Georgia appeared from nowhere and ended up enchanting me.

Leslie Cieplechowicz is a photographer and writer who developed her craft by working the streets of Detroit as a paramedic and shooting old, historical buildings she found on her runs. Her love of creating unique imagery lead her across the state, then the United States, then globally, where she currently finished shooting in the country of Cuba, documenting its lively culture, diverse people, and classical architecture and automobiles. She currently works as an instructor after leaving the road and spreads her love of photography to her students.  

Contact Leslie
(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher